The Miami Dolphins have been quiet on the linebacker front ever since showing interest in former free agent D’Qwell Jackson before he was signed by the Indianapolis Colts. While Miami’s interest in Jackson suggests changes are coming, it remains unclear how GM Dennis Hickey will shakeup the team’s linebacker corps this offseason.
After ranking 26th in run defense in 2013, the Dolphins covet a stronger run defender in the middle. The Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson offered an interesting tidbit on Sunday morning, explaining one potential solution. According to Jackson, the Dolphins are toying with the idea of moving strongside linebacker Koa Misi to middle linebacker.
It’s a potential change the Dolphins have considered in the past but never pulled the trigger on. However, when the Dolphins considered moving Misi inside in recent seasons, there was always perceived to be a quality starter in place. Karlos Dansby may have been overpaid, but his play never dipped below solid. And in 2013, Dannell Ellerbe was handed a $35 million deal to replace Dansby and was obviously expected to thrive.
But now, the middle linebacker spot is a question mark. The Dolphins appear intent on moving Ellerbe to the weakside and Philip Wheeler to the strongside after both struggled last season. The void created by the looming swap opens up the door for Misi to move inside. Considering the Dolphins didn’t show interest in free agent linebackers like Daryl Smith or Brandon Spikes, Misi’s potential position change is a rumor that might actually have legs this time around.
With the Dolphins on a clear mission to fill the majority of their needs before the draft, though — which would allow them to select the best player available throughout — solving the issue before May might be the team’s objective. If so, moving Misi inside becomes more sensible considering the free agency market no longer offers any surefire upgrades.
But would Misi be a good fit at middle linebacker? With no tape to evaluate of Misi playing the position in college or the pros, that is no easy question to answer. He does, however, have the potential to become an upgrade over Ellerbe on early downs.
Ellerbe’s biggest flaw in 2013 was the inability to violently wipe out running plays. He was washed away far too often by opposing offensive lines when attempting to seek out the ball-carrier. Misi’s strength, on the other hand, is setting the edge against the run. Obviously, on the inside, Misi wouldn’t be setting the edge, but his ability to effectively do so suggests he’s capable of filling lanes and making stops against the run in the middle.
Pro Football Focus’ metrics support that Misi is the superior run defender. Only eight of 35 qualifying 4-3 outside linebackers graded more efficiently against the run than Misi in 2013. Contrarily, only two of 55 qualifying inside linebackers graded less efficiency while defending the run than Ellerbe.
It’s easy to see why the Dolphins believe Misi might be able to clean up some of the team’s leaky run defense with a move to middle linebacker. It’s no guarantee that Misi would be a natural fit on the inside, though. Playing on the inside requires more instincts than playing on the outside.
Misi, having never played middle linebacker in college or the NFL, might lack the football IQ necessary to properly and timely diagnose running plays and screen passes. Intelligence, sometimes just as much as physical ability, is often what allows some of the league’s better middle linebackers to excel.
There is also the concern that Misi will be asked to drop back into coverage more often. Ellerbe played man or zone coverage versus the pass on over 50 percent of his snaps last season, whereas Misi did so on only 33 percent of his.
Ideally, Misi would remain a two-down player with Ellerbe and Wheeler staying on the field in Miami’s nickel package, but he would still likely be forced to cover more often than he has in the past. Misi isn’t incapable in coverage, but hasn’t been tested like he would at middle linebacker.
Moving Misi inside could be the shakeup the Dolphins’ linebacker corps needs, but there are certainly potential drawbacks to consider before doing so.
Cody Strahm is a Miami Dolphins contributor for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.