The Miami Dolphins signed veteran OLB Philip Wheeler to a five-year, $26 million contract during the 2013 offseason in hopes that Wheeler would offer an upgrade over former outside linebacker Kevin Burnett. Wheeler collected 118 total tackles (83 solo), 0.5 sacks, and 7 passes defensed in 16 starts for Miami in 2013. Burnett, on the other hand, collected 105 total tackles (83 solo), 2.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 1 interception and 4 passes defensed for the Oakland Raiders in 2013.
On paper, both players look as though they had similar seasons, but Wheeler struggled mightily against the run and was even worse in pass coverage grading than Burnett in 2013.
Wheeler seemed to play so badly in coverage that defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle would rather throw rookie OLB Jelani Jenkins, a fourth-round draft pick, into the fire instead.
Wheeler is now on the hot-seat and will likely battle Jenkins for his starting weak-side linebacker role in Coyle’s 4-3 defense next to MLB Koa Misi and SLB Dannell Ellerbe.
Jenkins collected 17 total tackles (15 solo) in a nickle/dime coverage role last season, appearing in all 16 games.
Wheeler was quite effective when Coyle decided to use him in blitz packages and had his best game of the season against the Indianapolis Colts during Week 2 of the 2013 NFL season where he notched 12 tackles (7 solo), 0.5 sacks, 2 passes defensed and numerous pressures on QB Andrew Luck. After that game, Wheeler’s production slowed heavily and was one of the team’s biggest liabilities at the linebacker position.
In his second season with the team, Wheeler is in line for a rebound season.
Miami has one of the best defensive line rotations in the league and Coyle will use his athletic defensive linemen to help open things up for his speedy linebackers. Wheeler is perhaps the most athletic linebacker the team has on its current roster and Coyle would be smart to use him as a pass rusher on third and long.
Wheeler has never been an overly great linebacker, but had his best season in 2012 with Oakland where he collected 109 tackles (78 solo), 3 sacks, and 6 passes defensed. In 2014, Wheeler should surpass those numbers and enter into an elite category for the Miami defense.
Miami’s defense is looking particularly athletic up front with athletic studs such as DEs Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon and Dion Jordan, DTs Earl Mitchell and Jared Odrick, and Wheeler, giving Coyle the flexibility to move pieces around to create great opportunities and mismatches for his players.
If Wheeler can become a more consistent tackler — it seemed like he had a balloon strapped to his chest last season, bouncing off ball carriers — his tackle numbers will only increase.
At times, Wheeler looked out of place in coverage, which may mean he just did not fully understand or grasp Coyle’s complex defensive scheme. Coyle tends to use diversions to confuse the offense, but the mass amount of movement may have confused the speedy outside linebacker.
Wheeler has now had a full season under his belt to not only learn Coyle’s seemingly complicated defensive scheme, but to also get himself into the best shape possible to thrust himself into the conversation as one of the NFL’s elite outside linebackers in the 2014 season.
My prediction is that he will do just that. Wheeler has no excuse not to collect 140+ total tackles, 95-110 of those being solo, 3-6 sacks, 2-4 forced fumbles, 1-3 interceptions and 10-13 passes defensed.