Miami Dolphins Biggest Question Mark in 2015: Linebackers


For the most part, the Miami Dolphins linebackers are a group of young, inexperienced players who remain a mystery in terms of production for the 2015 NFL season. Aside from Koa Misi, who is projected to start at the pivotal MLB position for the fins, there isn’t a single linebacker on the roster whose been a consistent starter at the NFL level. Furthermore, the Miami Dolphins head into OTA’s with 7 previously undrafted free agents at various linebacker positions including Chris McCain, Mike Hull, Jeff Luc, Spencer Paysinger, Jake Knott, Neville Hewitt and Zach Vigil.

Dolphins GM Dennis Hickey and EVP Mike Tannenbaum could have addressed the need for a true middle linebacker by drafting the explosive former Hurricane Denzel Perryman in round 2, but decided against it by trading back for additional 5th round picks and 52nd overall selection Jordan Phillips (defensive tackle). While I believe this was a mistake, it seems like the Dolphins front-office and coaching staff have enough confidence in the young  linebackers to get the job done in 2015. Finding the right group to start at the three linebacker positions won’t be easy, but there are early indications that the Dolphins will start Chris McCain at strong-side linebacker (SLB), Koa Misi at middle linebacker (MLB), and Jelani Jenkins at weak-side linebacker (WLB).

Koa Misi was injured for 5 games last season and struggled to adjust being the teams signal caller on defense. He ended 2014 with 66 tackles and just one sack to his name. The main problem for Misi is his lack of natural instincts and necessary awareness skills to call out coverages and communicate defensive line shifts. While Misi excels as a blitzing outside rusher who can beat you with power and occasionally help in the run game, he struggles in coverage and hasn’t been reliable due to injury. I’m not saying Misi is in jeopardy of losing his starting job, but if the Dolphins are going to be a top 5 defense in the NFL next year, they are going to need him to step up as a leader and consistent tackler. As for the rest of the competition at MLB, look for Kelvin Sheppard to back up Misi while undrafted rookies Zach Vigil, Jeff Luc, and Mike Hull try to make the roster via special teams.

Another former undrafted free agent is strong-side linebacker (SLB) Chris McCain. The former Cal Golden Bear wasn’t fond of his experience at California and even called out his former school back in October for using his pictures on their website after he was dismissed from the team. He blames Cal for ultimately going undrafted in 2014, but as a Dolphins fan, I’m sure glad he did. McCain has been an exciting prospect for the Dolphins thus far, contributing on special teams with a blocked punt against the Patriots and getting a few snaps on defense late last year. His quick-to-react athletic ability and break-out potential make him the most intriguing story heading into OTA’s. If McCain can put it all together on defense and step up as a quality starting linebacker, the Dolphins will have found a diamond in the rough. As for McCain’s backups, look for Jordan Tripp to have a larger role on defense in 2015 while Mike Hull tries to take some snaps when he can during OTA’s.

As far as linebackers go, the last position to examine is the weak-side, or “Will” linebacker. Weak-side backers are generally leaner, faster, and more agile than the middle or strong-side players. This is because the weak-side linebacker needs to be versatile enough to play the run and cover tight ends or slot receivers when needed. One of the better stories last year for the Dolphins was Jelani Jenkins. Jenkins, who is projected to start along the weak-side in 2015, was a fourth round pick in 2013 out of Florida and played an integral role along the Dolphins defense last year. The former Gator flashed pro bowl potential and ended the 2014 season with 83 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. Out of all the linebackers heading into 2015, Jenkins is the one I have the least amount of questions about. As long as he can continue to improve and build on his productive season from last year, Jenkins should be a starter for the Dolphins for the foreseeable future.

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When looking at the 2015 undrafted rookie linebackers, there seems to be a lot of potential. As cliché as that sounds, it’s 100% valid. The Dolphins have the former #1 high school inside linebacker prospect from 2010 in Jeff Luc, a former Nittany Lion (commonly known as Linebacker University) in Mike Hull, and former Utah Sate standout Zach Vigil. Jeff Luc is a hard hitting, old-school inside linebacker. He has a large frame and can shake off blockers with his upper body, but struggles against quick players due to his tight hips and inability to break down. If he doesn’t succeed as a middle linebacker, look for the Dolphins or another NFL team to give him a shot as a fullback. As for Mike Hull and Zach Vigil, both players have similar qualities. I expect at least one of them to make the team because of their high motor and football IQ. Both players are excellent against the run and occasionally struggle in coverage, but I give the edge to Mike Hull simply because he has the versatility to play inside and outside at the NFL level.

It isn’t hard to tell that the Miami Dolphins have a few questions going into OTA’s. Of all the questions, it’s easiest to identify the linebacker corps as the biggest question mark in terms of defensive production heading into 2015. Will Koa Misi become a leader and not get injured? Will Chris McCain evolve from a special teams standout and become a quality starter? Will Jelani Jenkins become a pro bowl caliber weak-side linebacker? Lastly, which undrafted free agents will step up and claim the few roster spots available on the Dolphins defense? We may not know the answers to these questions now, but it’s always fun to speculate in the comment section. Don’t forget to follow @PhinPhanatic and me on twitter @joshbinder86!