The Miami Dolphins defense has seen changes this off-season. The moves were not necessarily made as a result of underwhelming performances, rather they had small financial benefits to them as well as getting the unit younger and more aggressive at attacking opposing quarterbacks.
Longtime captain Karlos Dansby (31) and fellow veteran Kevin Burnett (30) gave the Dolphins some good linebacker play–Dansby for three seasons and Burnett for a pair. Although 2013 was likely going to be the final season in Aqua and Coral for each of them, it was still surprising to see Jeff Ireland and the organization aggressively make the linebacker changes in March.
Burnett and Dansby combined to average playing 15 games with around 220 tackles and four sacks annually. However it is worth noting that the 2010 and 2011 ‘Phins averaged being no.5 vs the run, and while 2012 was on that pace too the team did regress and finished no.13 in the NFL. These two veterans were warriors who played hurt and tried to be leaders on this team, but I do see why Ireland was aggressive in getting younger, faster, and more aggressive at the position.
Dannell Ellerbe (27) had just 90 total tackles from 2009 through 2011, but he more than doubled that in 2012. It is not a stretch to say the 2012 Baltimore Ravens would not have been in a position to be champs if not for the play of Ellerbe when he stepped in for an injured Ray Lewis. Ellerbe had one career sack entering 2012, but he had 4.5 this season and he is a guy whose time as a play-making difference maker is just getting started.
Philip Wheeler (28) was on a plane to Miami to complete his new Dolphins deal when he saw a sports item that showed Ellerbe had been inked by the ‘Phins. He got in touch with his agent to make sure he was on the right flight, that the Dolphins were still interested in the linebacker. Indeed they were. This is a guy who Miami wanted in 2012, but he chose the Oakland Raiders, as he felt they had the playing time for him because Miami had veterans Burnett and Dansby ahead on the depth chart.
Wheeler has improved in all five of his seasons, and had a career-high 109 tackles this past season. 3.0 of his 5.0 career sacks came in 2012 as well, and much like Ellerbe his days of being a legit (and aggressive) contributor are just getting started.
Dansby and Burnett were going to make just over $14 million this season, and the new linebackers should be around 60% of that, so despite the buyouts and penalties etc these moves/upgrades will not be any sort of financial burden for the 2013 Dolphins. After that there is a lot of cash money owed to Wheeler and Ellerbe, but as seen in the past, NFL teams can get out from contracts where the bang is not there for their buck. I do not think that is a concern, but just worth noting that even if these moves do not work out the team has not created any sort of potential salary cap/financial issue.
Overall I very much like these moves and I do consider them upgrades. Cameron Wake should be thrilled as these linebackers are going to improve the blitzing ability for the Dolphins and that can only help the already great Wake. The run defense should have a chance to get back in the top 5 as well so kudos to Ireland and his staff.