Armando Salguero

Miami Dolphins’ case for a linebacker in the NFL draft’s first round

Lawrence Timmons often worked against tight ends and even slot receivers when he played for the Pittsburgh Steelers before joining the Miami Dolphins.
Lawrence Timmons often worked against tight ends and even slot receivers when he played for the Pittsburgh Steelers before joining the Miami Dolphins. TNS

This marks the third in a series of Dolphins In Depth posts explaining why the Miami Dolphins must address various positions during the upcoming April 27-29 draft. Today: Linebackers.

An interesting thing happened during the hours Lawrence Timmons spent with Miami Dolphins coaches prior to his signing as the team’s signature defensive addition of the offseason: Timmons, an inside linebacker for years in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense, came the Miami and didn’t ask coaches their intentions for using him in the Dolphins’ 4-3 defense.

And the Dolphins never mentioned it to him, either.

Let that marinate for a moment ...

You go to a job interview, get offered the position, accept, but neither you nor the employer mentions what your assignment is going to be.

Am I the only one thinking this irregular?

Apparently so because the Dolphins see no issues.

“He never came in and said,˜What am I playing or what do you see me as?” coach Adam Gase confirmed. “In our defense, really everybody’s going to play one of those spots at some point. Our biggest decision right now that we’re working through is, is it better for us to play right or left linebacker ... Sam and Will.“ Because we’re basically three linebackers off the ball.

“When we had Koa (Misi) last year ...”

Stop right there. This is where I tell you the Dolphins didn’t have Koa Misi for very long last year. He played in two games and then was injured the remainder of the year because, well, he’s Koa Misi.

Continuing ...

“It was a little different because we did do some things to where we created almost like a 3-4 type defense (with) an under front,” Gase said. “We just have to see really see who our bodies are heading into the spring and training camp and we’ll make those decisions. When you play nickel, everybody’s going to play Mike at some point.”

(By the way, Mike is the middle linebacker. Will is the weakside linebacker. Sam is the strongside linebacker.)

So the decision on the exact use of Timmons is to be decided. And the decision on the exact use of incumbent middle linebacker Kiko Alonso is also going to be decided, although he seems destined to be the Will.

You’ll recall I reported Alonso wanted to stay in the middle because he prospered there last year and he felt comfortable there. His agent told the Dolphins at the NFL Combine in February that Alonso wanted to remain in the middle .

But the Dolphins listened to that request and they’re going to put Alonso wherever they see fit because team comes first and Alonso will do whatever he’s asked after signing a four-year $28.9 million deal with $18.5 million in total guarantees that averages $7.2 million per season.

Also, Kiko Alonso signed his new deal after obviously telling his agent he wanted to play the Mike again but he didn’t mention it to the Dolphins either.

“I can’t start talking football with Kiko,” Gase said. “I can’t say, ˜This is what we’re going to do.” It’s legitimately CBA (collective bargaining agreement rules). You have to be careful. If you see a guy, it cannot be about anything football-related, so we can’t speak to our players about anything football-related.”

And where does all this vagueness about where linebackers will be playing for the Dolphins in 2017 leave the team?

In a perfect scenario for adding more linebackers in the draft.

And that is exactly what the Dolphins intend to do.

Look, the Dolphins are fully aware their linebacker corps last year was not good even at the beginning of the year when everyone was healthy. Jelani Jenkins was a smart, try-hard player but he had limitations and then he got hurt (again) because he’s a smallish linebacker. Misi got hurt also. And that left Alonso and una comparsa of backups to fill the void during much of the season.

So the Dolphins had tackling problems. And they finished 30th in the NFL against the run.

No bueno.

(I’m not blaming it all on the linebackers. The middle of the Dolphins defensive line got run over in some games, the edge players had trouble with containment, and the secondary struggled with tackling).

So in an offseason the Dolphins added tackling machine Lawrence Timmons, rewarded Alonso with a new contract and restructured Misi’s deal so he could get another chance at playing following a neck surgery, the linebacker spot remains a significant need for this team.

How significant?

I’d say it is the second biggest need on the team, right behind defensive end, as outlined in this huge link.

So would I advocate picking a linebacker in the first round of the coming draft? Well, it depends on who is there and value and so forth. But even though I’m all in on finding the best DE out there, I understand filling one or two linebacker spots is a must.

Why?

First, Timmons is an answer now. But he’ll be 31 in May so he’s not the answer for very long.

Secondly, Misi gets hurt a lot. He once suffered a serious calf injury in a special teams walk-thru.

Thirdly, linebackers are supposed to be core special teams players. So drafting good, young linebackers not only sets up the future of the defense longterm but should, at worst, help the special teams immediately.

So linebackers is a thing for the Dolphins in the April 27-29 draft.

Which leads us to whom?

Vanderbilt’s OLB Zach Cunningham. He was the SEC’s leading tackler and that can be deceiving if you’re thinking he’s making a bunch of tackles 8-10 yards downfield. He wasn’t. He’s really good. He’s a raw athlete who chases well, he doesn’t often whiff although his technique isn’t always great, he’s really football smart which is something the Dolphins need to improve on. This guy is full bore No. 22 overall first round talent.

Wisconsin’s OLB T.J. Watt. I like the makeup and genetics (he’s J.J. Watt’s brother) and size and all that. But I see more of a 3-4 OLB than Watt playing in the 4-3. On the other hand, a good player is a good player is a good player. He has the want-to and that is so, so important. He’s also smart-ish.

Temple’s OLB Haason Reddick. Great speed, as in 4.5 great which is blazing for a linebacker. Reddick started out as a DB. But he doesn’t tackle like a DB. He has desire for contact. Reddick was mostly rushing the passer in college but his size -- he’s only 6-1 -- means he’s not really an edge rusher type every down. I don’t love Reddick in the first round, but that is probably where he’ll be drafted. I would love this guy in the second round. Did I mention his great speed?

Kansas State’s Jordan Willis. The Dolphins struggled setting the edge of the defense in 2016. LaGarrette Blount is still gaining yards running outside of Andre Branch and Misi and Jenkins. Willis is very, very good at setting a strong edge. He’s 255 pounds so he’s big for an OLB. Scouts say he’s more a 3-4 OLB. I like him fine in the 4-3 but wonder about his coverage skills.

Ohio State’s ILB Raekwon McMillan. Well coached and takes coaching well. This kid is built like a linebacker at 6-2 and 240 pounds with thick legs and arms that look like legs on the average person. He sheds blocks well. He’ll get better at it. He is not exactly brilliant figuring angles to the ball and getting around blockers without contact. He should be there when the Dolphins pick in the first round.

UCLA’s OLB Takk McKinley. Fast, as in 10.7 100-meter guy for his high school track team. Explosive off the edge with a burst and twitch that is elite. He’s so low here because he’ll probably be gone by the time the Dolphins pick. He’s more a 3-4 OLB but I just like very good players. By the way, he’s not perfect. His run defense needs work.

Florida’s ILB Jarrad Davis. Injured part of last year, not prototypical size or speed. He had a good 2016 SEC championship game if you want to be impressed by his tape - and yes, the Gators gave up a ton of points that game. Excellent run defender, which is important for an inside linebacker. Questionable in space and in pass coverage. Some folks have him as a first-round talent. I do not.

Missouri’s OLB Charles Harris. So, if the Dolphins were a 3-4 team, he’d be at or near the top of this list. The Dolphins are a 4-3 team so that makes me pause because it seems like a waste of Harris’s pass-rush skills. I suppose the team could come up with some zone blitz package for him or maybe just put his hand in the dirt on pass downs. I’m not in love with Harris as a run defender. And neither are some scouts.

Northwestern’s ILB Anthony Walker. Smart. A tackle machine with great read-and-react abilities. He can cover well and understands concepts, which is important to not screwing up. The problem is he’s undersized at 6-1 and 225 pounds.

The prototype, by the way, is about 6-3 and 240-245.

Moving on ...

Honorable mentions: Kendall Beckwith, Ben Gedeon, Duke Riley, Alex Anzalone (injury questions), Carroll Phillips, Vince Biegel

You don’t see Myles Garrett or Rueben Foster here because they will be gone by the time the Dolphins pick.

Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

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