What Interest In D'Qwell Jackson Means For Miami Dolphins' Plans At LB This Offseason

By Cody Strahm
John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins will reportedly meet with fee-agent linebacker D’Qwell Jackson on Tuesday. Since his release from the Cleveland Browns last Wednesday, Jackson has additionally met with the Tennessee Titans and Denver Broncos. The Arizona Cardinals are said to have interest in Jackson as well.

With so many teams potentially in play, the Dolphins’ interest, however significant, certainly doesn’t mean that a deal between the club and Jackson is looming. It could be an indication of what Miami’s plans are at the linebacker position this offseason, however.

The Dolphins haven’t publicly acknowledged their disappointment in Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, the linebackers who replaced Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett last spring, but it’s quite obvious that the team isn’t satisfied with how the two played after inking lucrative contracts. Ellerbe and Wheeler both racked up over 100 tackles for the Dolphins’ defense, but that doesn’t tell the whole story — quite frankly, it tells very little of it.

According to Pro Football Focus, Ellerbe finished the season ranked 50th among 55 qualifying inside linebabackers. He particularly struggled to shed blocks, fill running lanes and make sound tackles when defending the run, finishing as the third-least efficient run defender at the position in the entire NFL.

Wheeler, meanwhile, actually fared worst, ranking as the least efficient 4-3 outside linebacker in the league. He also struggled against the run, finishing second-to-last in the category, but was much more porous in coverage than Ellerbe, ranking fourth worst among qualifying 4-3 outside linebackers.

Looking at the Dolphins’ team statistics is also reflective of Ellerbe and Wheeler’s poor play. Miami finished 13th versus the run in 2012, but plummeted to 24th after the linebacker swap in 2013. A major reason for the falloff was Ellerbe and Wheeler’s inability to disengage from blockers and violently attack ball carriers. Whether it was complacency or simply a matter of the two not being exposed on their previous teams, Ellerbe and Wheeler were colossal disappointments in 2013.

Needless to say, the Dolphins will be looking for ways to improve their linebacker corps this offseason, and even a minimal amount of interest in Jackson confirms that. Would signing Jackson be a solution for Miami, though?

Jackson was a prolific tackler over the past three seasons for the Browns, tallying an average of 139 tackles per year during that span. Like with Ellerbe and Wheeler, though, the box score doesn’t tell the entire story.

Pro Football Focus slotted Jackson as the league’s 42nd most efficient inside linebacker in 2013 — eight spots higher than Ellerbe but only 13 spots above the worst graded player at the position. Most discouragingly, Jackson finished as the seventh worst run defender, which is the area Miami needs improvement the most.

As an inside linebacker, Jackson wouldn’t directly replace Wheeler, who the Dolphins are rumored to be more concerned with. The team would either be looking to replace Ellerbe or move him to outside linebacker.

Jackson might not be an ideal upgrade for the Dolphins in regards to his performance or his position, but there is another reason why he would potentially benefit Kevin Coyle‘s defense. According to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, the Dolphins have made it a goal to improve their locker-room environment in the wake of “Bullygate” and view Jackson as an ideal candidate to help that effort.

New GM Dennis Hickey is reportedly high on Jackson’s leadership ability. It’s something the Browns praised him for, with GM Ray Farmer describing Jackson as “the epitome of class, leadership and professionalism.”

Although Jackson probably wouldn’t be a substantial upgrade performance-wise, he could be the veteran presence in the locker room that the Dolphins are missing.

Chances are the Dolphins will be forced to keep Ellerbe and Wheeler in 2014 even if a potential starter like Jackson is nabbed, as both linebackers would produce cap penalties exceeding $4 million if cut. But adding a player like Jackson would not only provide the Dolphins with a leader, but also some much needed competition.

At the very least, the Dolphins must add a linebacker or two who can threaten Ellerbe and Wheeler’s snaps. Perhaps doing so would counteract any potential complacency that set in after the two were paid in 2013.

The Dolphins are more likely to add competition at linebacker in the draft as opposed to free agency, but visiting with Jackson at least confirms that the team is taking a proactive approach to improve the corps.

Follow Cody Strahm on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.

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