By pursuing D’Qwell Jackson, the Miami Dolphins have shown that they realized that the play of their linebackers was a disappointment and a problem last year. The Dolphins want to move Dannell Ellerbe to the weakside and replace him in the middle of Kevin Coyle‘s 4-3 system, forcing Philip Wheeler to compete with Koa Misi for the starting strong side linebacker position. All three linebackers received new contracts with the Dolphins last year.
Since the Jackson signing didn’t work out, where can the Dolphins find a new leader for their defense?
The Dolphins need a linebacker who can effectively stop the run to shore up the league’s 24th-ranked run defense. This means being strong enough to shed and power through blockers, smart enough to fill the correct running lane, instinctive enough shoot through gaps and athletic enough to make the tackle.
But the Dolphins also need a linebacker who can cover a Darren Sproles-type RB coming out of the backfield. Sproles torched the Dolphins for 117 yards and a touchdown on seven catches on Monday night of Week 4 when the Dolphins played the New Orleans Saints in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Dolphins consistently struggled to cover quick RBs last season and got killed by check-downs that went for first downs.
The Dolphins’ new middle linebacker will also need to be inept at rushing the passer. Coyle’s blitz-happy system features frequent attacks to the “A” gaps on an offensive line on either side of the center. The middle linebacker is often used in these blitzes. Ellerbe only had one sack last season in this role, part of the reason he is being moved.
This goes without saying, but the new middle linebacker must be a leader and must be smart. As the “quarterback of the defense”, the middle linebacker sees what the offense is doing and gets the defense in the correct alignments. Here are four free agent options for the Dolphins:
Brandon Spikes: Spikes has shown uncanny run-stopping ability while with the New England Patriots, becoming a run-stuffing specialist in his time playing for Bill Belichick. Spikes was the No. 1 rated ILB when it came to stopping the run last year, according to PFF’s ratings. However, he struggles mightily in coverage and is usually off the field in obvious passing situations.
Daryl Smith: Smith is the man who replaced Ellerbe, who had to replace Ray Lewis. Smith defended 19 passes last season (more than Richard Sherman) and intercepted three passes. Unfortunately, Smith is 32-years old and would simply be a stop-gap in the middle of the defense. He is also one of the worst LBs in the game against the run with a -13.1 rating according to PFF. Even so, he would still be an upgrade in that category over Ellerbe, who has a -17.0 rating against the run.
Karlos Dansby: This former Dolphin was arguably the best LB in the league last year playing for the team who started his career, the Arizona Cardinals. Dansby earned positive grades across the board with a 13.3 overall rating, fifth in the league among ILBs. Dansby was a playmaking machine last year, intercepting four passes (two returned for touchdowns), sacking opposing quarterbacks 6.5 times and breaking up 19 passes, tied with Daryl Smith for sixth in the NFL.
Dansby has stated he wants to return to Arizona, but will likely test the free agent market after contract talks have started to complicate due to Dansby’s age (33).
Erin Henderson: Henderson provides another run-stopping option who is a bit more well-rounded than Spikes. Henderson was the 18th-ranked inside linebacker last season and had a 5.2 rating against the run, sixth in the NFL.
The Dolphins’ new middle linebacker will need to excel in at least one of the areas I listed above. The most likely is a coverage linebacker as the flirting with Jackson suggests. The Dolphins’ current linebackers lack in so many areas that it is difficult to add the right guy to the group. Miami needs an all-around linebacker, and that may need to come through the draft.
If the Dolphins feel the need to upgrade through free agency, I believe it will either be Smith or a young, cheap option to play a specialist role. The Dolphins could also give a guy who hasn’t gotten a lot of playing time like Vincent Rey or Akeem Jordan a shot, but that would be a huge risk.