2015 Miami Dolphins Linebackers: Part One


Entering this off-season, it was said that the Dolphins would target a starting linebacker in either free agency or the draft, but that is obviously not what happened. General Manager Dennis Hickey and new Vice President of Football Operations Mike Tannenbaum are clearly content with the linebacking corps that they have for this coming season, which is kind of peculiar, especially considering they have several questions at the third starting spot. Obviously Jelani Jenkins and Koa Misi will be the first two starting linebackers, but after that, guys like Chris McCain, Jordan Tripp, Kelvin Shepherd, and Spencer Paysinger will fight out it, with the competition for the third spot being something worth keeping an eye on.

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While the Dolphins didn’t draft a linebacker, they did sign four undrafted free agents that were projected to get drafted, but didn’t for one reason or another. Neville Hewitt from Marshall, Mike Hull from Penn State, Jeff Luc from Cincinnati, and Zach Vigil from Utah State were the four guys that were signed, but they will be discussed in a later article.

Projected starters: Jelani Jenkins, Koa Misi, and Chris McCain

Knowing that the first two starting spots are pretty much locked up, the battle for the other starting linebacker position will be very compelling to watch this summer. This will be a heavily contested battle, but ultimately, Joe Philbin and the coaching staff will be fighting to keep their jobs and they know that by having playmakers on the field, it increases the chances of the defense making plays and causing turnovers. Joe Philbin is not in the place to be conservative this season. It is either playoffs or go home for him, and starting McCain gives Philbin and the defense the best chance to make game-changing plays.

Jelani Jenkins 6’0″ 245 lbs.

Jelani Jenkins isn’t the biggest linebacker in the NFL, but he is certainly talented. Last year was his breakout year for the Dolphins, when he was forced into action after week one, and he took the starting job and ran with it, accumulating a team leading 110 tackles and 3.5 sacks. He was very good about filling the right running lanes and not missing tackles, but what he really excelled in was pass defense. Jenkins was the best pass covering linebacker that the Dolphins had last year and was given the task of covering running backs out of the backfield and tight ends on obvious passing downs.

According to profootballfocus.com, Jenkins was rated as the Dolphins best defender in pass coverage with a +2.4 pass coverage rating, which is very impressive considering pro bowl cornerback Brent Grimes is on the team.

Jenkins was one of the key cogs for the Dolphins defense last year, and for the defense to improve this year, he will have to be that and even more by taking his game to the next level. He will need to cause more turnovers and help get the defense off the field on third downs even more.

Take a look at this article explaining why Jenkins could be a big x-factor for the Dolphins this year.

Projected Stats: 125 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles

Koa Misi 6’3″ 254 lbs

Transitioning from an outside linebacker to an inside linebacker proved to be quite the project for  the Dolphins and Koa Misi last year, as it was his third position since entering the NFL. He’s played at 3-4 outside linebacker, 4-3 outside linebacker, and now middle linebacker. Misi also suffered from injuries last season, as he only managed to play in 11 games, in which he wasn’t healthy in any of those games that he actually played in either. Now that Misi has had the off-season to recover from his injuries, Misi should be a very solid linebacker for the Dolphins. Misi fits the “jack-of-all-trades, master of none” cliché, but it describes his game quite well. Misi is Mr. Versatile, meaning, he does a little of everything solidly, but does nothing great. He is as solid as a linebacker as you will find in the NFL. He hardly ever makes mental mistakes. He is in the right position the vast majority of the time, and very rarely will he get beat in the run game.

Misi’s problem is that he is not a playmaker. He will make the solid play, but he will not make the game-changing play, and that is fine for what the Dolphins need this year, especially if the other two outside linebackers can make some impact plays instead.

Misi fits the “jack-of-all-trades, master of none” cliche, but it describes his game quite well

All the Dolphins need from Misi this year is for him to stay healthy, be a solid contributor, particularly in the run game, and teach the younger guys how to be a professional and work hard. Misi is one of the few veterans in this group and the Dolphins will need his leadership this year.

Projected Stats: 90 Tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble

Chris McCain 6’5″ 250 lbs.

An undrafted free agent last out of California Berkeley, Chris McCain wasn’t drafted because of a lack of talent, but because of his off-the-field issues. Thankfully though, those things seem to be behind him now as it appears that he is settling into his role as a professional athlete. His talents were almost on full display the very first game of the year in 2014 as he sacked Tom Brady to help seal the game for the Dolphins and blocked a punt on special teams as well.

At 6’5″ 250 pounds, McCain is a fast, physical presence on the defense, who could turn into a real steal for the Dolphins, but many wondered why the first game against the New England Patriots was his only game last year where he got extended playing time. While that question is almost impossible to answer unless you happen to be inside the Dolphins facilities, what is undeniable is his talent.

McCain is strong enough to set the edge on run plays and tackle the running back, athletic enough to cover running backs out of the backfield, and talented enough to rush the passer and create havoc in the backfield for the quarterback. He just needs the time and experience to put it all together.

McCain could be a poor man’s Von Miller if defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle uses him properly. He could be used to stop the run on first and second down and then to rush the passer on third down, by taking advantage of the NASCAR package by rushing Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon, Ndamukong Suh, and McCain all at the same time.  The offense can only double team so many people and that leaves one-on-one coverage for one of these guys, in which case all of these guys are more than capable of beating a man in a one-on-one situation.

Starting McCain can definitely be seen as a risky or a high risk, high reward type of proposition for the Dolphins, but starting him would give this defense a lot of flexibility that they didn’t have last year, which is something that Dion Jordan was supposed to provide this year after they spent their third overall pick in the 2013 draft on him.

Projected Stats: 40 tackles, 6 sacks, 2 forced fumbles

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Key Backups:

Spencer Paysinger 6’2″ 236 lbs

Signed from the New York Giants this off-season, Spencer Paysinger was brought in this off-season to sure up the special teams to replace the loss of Jason Trusnik, but also push for the third starting linebacker role. It looks like a tough road for Paysinger to gain the starting role as he has several guys to compete with and he has never started a full season before.

Paysinger, though, did fill as a starter for 10 games for the Giants in 2013, he wasn’t much of playmaker, but he was a solid as a fill in. If the Dolphins had an injury at one of their outside linebacker positions, Paysinger would be a nice option to have to fill in for a few weeks or so while the starter recovers from injury. Paysinger’s main role, though, will most likely being a key contributor on special teams with the occasional support on defense.

Kelvin Sheppard 6’2″ 252 lbs.

Kelvin Sheppard is the typical solid middle linebacker who is good enough to start in the right conditions, but has been mostly a career backup who specializes in stuffing the run but struggles with almost everything else. He is a stronger player who does a decent job of shedding blocks to get to the ball carrier, but struggles with pass coverage. Sheppard is also a very good special teamer, but when given the chance to start one game last year, came up with 10 tackles. So it is pretty clear that Sheppard can fill in nicely as a replacement for Koa Misi at middle linebacker if he got injured, but it is very hard to see him being able to over take him for the starting spot.

His best shot at getting a starting role is winning the battle for the third spot, but his limited pass coverage ability puts him in a tough spot, as the Dolphins will need a playmaker at the position. Again, Sheppard will be very nice to have as a good backup, possible fill in starter, and key special teams contributor, but his role will be limited to doing a lot of smaller things to help the team win.

Jordan Tripp 6’4″ 245 lbs.

Jordan Tripp could be the real wild card here in the race for the third starting spot among the linebackers. Tripp got hardly any playing time year, not because he isn’t talent, but because he just wasn’t strong enough. Now that he has had a off-season to dedicate himself to getting stronger, he looks much to be much stronger and have much more bulk on his frame.

Watch this video from Tripp’s agent to get a look into the progress he has made this off-season

From what the Dolphins saw in Tripp last year, it sounds as if they are really high on him and could really challenge for the third linebacker spot this year. While he might not quite be ready yet, Tripp should have added enough to strength to make much more of an impact this year than he did last. Tripp has enough potential to become a solid starter, he just needs to put it all together along with added strength to become a viable option for the Dolphins.

The conventional wisdom is that the Dolphins don’t have enough talent at the linebacker position to be productive, but if Coyle and linebacker’s coach Mark Duffner can continue to develop some of the younger guys like McCain, Jenkins, and Tripp, then there is no reason to doubt that the Dolphins could have a very solid linebacker group, who could potentially produce at a higher level than everyone thought previously.