This Dolphins march to the playoffs is remarkable for many reasons, including this one: They’re doing it with a patchwork group surrounding Kiko Alonso at linebacker.
With one starter (Koa Misi) sidelined since Week 5 because of neck surgery, another (Jelani Jenkins) rendered largely ineffective by knee issues, the Dolphins have needed to rely on a collection of players who were previously cut (Donald Butler, by San Diego in March and Arizona in September), undrafted developmental projects (Neville Hewitt and Mike Hull) and a veteran who had mostly been an NFL backup (Spencer Paysinger).
The Dolphins listed Jenkins as questionable for Sunday’s game, but he practiced Friday and said he’s optimistic he will play Sunday, though he said he won’t be 100 percent.
Alonso remains the glue holding this linebacker group together, his value evident in several enormous plays, including the game-winning interception return against San Diego.
“He had a hell of a year for us,” defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said.
The Dolphins were 30th against the run this season but “Kiko has done well against the run,” defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said.
Alonso finished 18th in the league in tackles (112) and tied with Houston’s Whitney Mercilus for first in fumbles recovered (four). He also had two interceptions and forced a fumble.
The Dolphins intend to add two starting linebackers this offseason to play alongside Alonso, a restricted free agent who they have every intention of keeping.
But if the Dolphins find a great middle linebacker in the offseason, Alonso’s athleticism would allow him to move to weakside if they choose.
Middle linebacker has been a revolving door since the Dolphins and Zach Thomas parted ways after 2007. Karlos Dansby had some good moments in three years here, but Akin Ayodele, Dannell Ellerbe, Misi and Kelvin Sheppard had issues with injuries or ineffectiveness.
“I don't think there are any ifs, ands or buts about it: He's definitely solidified that position to the point where he can be the Dolphins' middle linebacker for years to come,” Paysinger said.
Paysinger, who had 59 tackles and three passes defended this season, then raised and dispelled a whisper about Alonso.
“He's a very simple person and the stigma with him around the league is a lot of people think he's not the smartest guy in the world,” Paysinger said. “I've known Kiko since I was 20 years old and I've never seen somebody's mind work the way his does. You can tell him one thing three weeks ago and he'll be able to recall it just like that, especially on the field.
“He learns in his own way and you can ask coaches, they haven't seen any dropoff in intelligence and haven't had to make the same corrections with him week to week. He's able to take in information, process it the way he processes it and is able to spew it out at a moment's notice. I’ve never seen somebody think the way he thinks.”
Alonso made clear he wants to spend the rest of his career here. “I don’t want to go anywhere,” he said.
Fox analyst Charles Davis said, off air: “There could not be a better marriage a player could have with a city and a defense,” than Miami has with Alonso, who is a Cuban American.
Alonso agrees with that portrayal: “You described it perfectly.”
Alonso said one key this season is “I feel back to normal. I feel my explosion, my strength, everything. It feels back, [like Buffalo in 2013].”
And in this defense, Joseph “allows the middle linebacker to do a lot of things. That plays in my favor. I feel I'm very versatile. I can cover, play run, blitz. I get to do all” of that.
Against the Patriots, beyond Alonso playing all 67 snaps as usual, Joseph gave Paysinger 39, Butler 22, Hewitt 21 and Hull 8. Joseph briefly experimented with Alonso and Hull on the field at the same time.
For the season, Alonso played 1049 snaps, and Paysinger, Jenkins, Butler and Hewitt all logged between 333 and 372, according to Pro Football Focus. Misi was limited to 127 before his neck injury and Hull logged 112.
Among 89 qualifiers, Alonso finished 50th in PFF’s performance rankings (much lower than his standing earlier in the season), Paysinger 54th, Butler 73rd, Hewitt 75th and Jenkins 89th and last.
Joseph assuredly would quibble with Hewitt’s ranking: He has had a “great season,” Joseph said.
So how are the Dolphins winning with this patchwork linebacker group?
“It has been a work in progress, losing Koa, losing Jelani half the season,” Joseph said. “In base, Neville Hewitt has been really good at the Will ‘backer spot. He’s been consistent. He’s been productive, so he’s been really good at that spot.
“Donald Butler has been our Sam (linebacker) for the last two months and he’s been solid. In sub downs, it’s been a work in progress, obviously, with (Jelani) Jenkins being hurt most of the time. (Spencer) Paysinger has played at a high level some and not some. Mike Hull is a guy that hadn’t repped a bunch of sub downs until last week’s game. He’ll be in the mix also, but it’s a work in progress. It’s a committee job right now and we’re working through it.”
• For the third consecutive day, cornerback Byron Maxwell did not practice because of an ankle injury, clearly diminishing his chances of playing Sunday after considerable internal optimism earlier in the week.
For my Heat/UM post today, including some comments from Chris Bosh and UM becoming a finalist for an elite recruit, please click here.