Would Reported LB Swap Solve Miami Dolphins' Issues?

By Cody Strahm
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

In addition to Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandjio being tabbed as the supposed favorite to become the Miami Dolphins‘ first-round pick, the Palm Beach Post dropped another interesting nugget last Friday evening.

Apparently, GM Dennis Hickey has no interest in drafting a linebacker early and will instead move Koa Misi from “Sam” to “Mike,” Dannell Ellerbe from “Mike” to “Will” and Philip Wheeler from “Will” to “Sam” in an effort to improve a corps that disappointed severely in 2013.

The poor play of Ellerbe and Wheeler in particular was a major reason why the Dolphins’ previously solid run defense plummeted to 24th in the NFL. Pro Football Focus did the most revealing job of summarizing just how porous the two were, ranking Ellerbe as the league’s 50th most efficient inside linebacker out of 55 eligible players at the position and Wheeler dead last in the same category among eligible 4-3 outside linebackers.

But will the reported three-man swap really shore up the defense?

Before that question is addressed, it should be noted that said swap is nothing but a rumor until Misi is seen manning middle linebacker at practice or the Dolphins acknowledge it as fact themselves. Additionally, it’s highly improbable that Hickey has ruled out selecting a linebacker early in the draft. For a GM who swears by approaching the draft with a best-player-available mindset, eliminating the top linebacker prospects in the class — some of whom could be the best remaining player on the board — would be a contradiction to that claim.

For the sake of analyzing the swap hypothetically, let’s assume the shakeup is at least a contingency plan in case the Dolphins are unable to nab an upgrade like Alabama’s C.J. Mosley next month. The main draws for mixing things up in the reported manner are undoubtedly Misi’s adeptness versus the run, along with Ellerbe and Wheeler’s potential to be less exposed.

According to Pro Football Focus, only eight 4-3 outside linebackers in the league fared better against the run than Misi in 2013. His ability to hold his ground versus blocks or shed them in order to make a play on the ball carrier project him as a potential upgrade over Ellerbe inside on early downs.

Ellerbe wasn’t a complete lost cause in 2013, producing average grades in coverage and when blitzing, but his inability to disengage from second-level blocking was detrimental to the run defense. Only two eligible inside linebackers in the entire NFL were given a worse run defense grade by Pro Football Focus. On the weak side, Ellerbe wouldn’t face the same steady flow of offensive linemen blocking into the second line.

As for Wheeler, a move to the strong side would position him back at the spot he succeeded at in 2012 with the Oakland Raiders. Two years ago, Wheeler was Pro Football Focus’ sixth overall 4-3 outside linebacker, playing every game on the strong side. He was productive rushing and reliable in coverage while grading only slightly negatively against the run. However, it’s hard to associate Wheeler’s struggles in 2013 with his new assignment on the weak side.

Many of Wheeler’s shortcomings derived from fundamental lapses like missing tackles and getting burned in coverage, not necessarily anything different Miami asked of him. Complacency from a lucrative, multi-year deal likely played a more significant role in his poor play than a position change. Still, a switch back to the strong side could be the move Wheeler needs to return to form for familiarity with past success, if nothing else.

Overall, the hypothetical three-man swap is certainly capable of cleaning up some of Miami’s issues, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a roll of the dice. As the corps stands pre-swap, the Dolphins have at least one solid player in Misi at “Sam.” Moving him to “Mike” would create another question mark and potential weakness.

The Dolphins are already committed to two question marks in Ellerbe and Wheeler thanks to an egregious salary cap hit for cutting either player. Creating a third question mark could diminish the corps’ quality even further.

While there are several reasons why the moves could work, going through with them would still be a significant gamble. It’s that uncertainty with or without a swap that should have the Dolphins thinking linebacker during the draft. But if the right prospect doesn’t fall into the Dolphins’ lap, mixing and matching might be the club’s only option.

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