Excellence once resided at middle linebacker for the Miami Dolphins. Nick Buoniconti played there. So did John Offerdahl and Bryan Cox and Zach Thomas. For multiple decades this team didn’t worry about its middle linebacker.
Other teams worried about the Dolphins’ middle linebacker.
The past four years have changed that.
Since 2012, we discovered that Karlos Dansby, signed after being excellent in Arizona, suddenly wasn’t good in Miami. So he was replaced by Dannell Ellerbe.
Then we discovered Ellerbe, who had been so good in Baltimore he was considered the Ray Lewis heir, wasn’t too good in Miami, either. And, meanwhile, Dansby went back to Arizona and played great again after leaving Miami.
Then Ellerbe was moved off the spot and Koa Misi was moved in.
Misi, new to the position, got injured the first game of 2014 and said “I was never 100 percent” the entire season. Eventually the season ended, and Misi got healthy and something encouraging happened.
“To tell you the truth, I finally felt comfortable [at middle linebacker] this offseason,” Misi said. “I was hurt last season, so I was in and out and I was trying to get back into things, then I’d get hurt again. It was all messed up. So this offseason, during OTAs and workouts and things, I got to finally feeling comfortable.”
Even as Misi was feeling as though he was now settled in, the Dolphins came to him and asked whether he might accept moving outside. Coaches hoping to play their best three linebackers decided moving Misi from middle linebacker to strong-side linebacker and letting Kelvin Sheppard compete for the middle linebacker job might make the team better.
Misi agreed and that's how it played out. Sheppard won the middle linebacker job while Misi returned to an outside linebacker job.
Before the regular-season opener against Washington, coaches decided Sheppard should still start but undrafted rookie free agent Zach Vigil should also share the position.
So Sheppard got about 20 snaps against the Redskins and Vigil got around 17-19. Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said the split was a way to build depth on defense.
Can you imagine sitting Zach Thomas or Bryan Cox or Nick Buoniconti to build depth?
That sounds like a diplomatic way of saying coaches want to see whether Vigil, who has promise, can start growing into being a starter later on.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say I shared,” Sheppard said of the split snaps. “I mean, I’m the starter at MLB. The coaches put in the game plan each week and I just go out and try to have an impact on the defense and have the role that I have. Whenever the coaches tell me to go in, I do that and try to help the defense to the best of my ability.”
Sheppard said he “ended up grading out pretty well” against the Redskins. Vigil struggled a bit more in his first regular-season action.
“My footwork wasn’t as good as it needs to be, and I just was over-thinking it for the most part,” he said.
“Obviously the game was a little bit faster and there was a lot going on in my head, and that’s something I have to overcome. Moving forward, I think it will slow down some now that I got the first one out of the way.”
But even with that first game out of the way, are the Dolphins any closer to finding an excellent, consistent starting middle linebacker who is more an exclamation point than a question mark?
Are they finally about to solve the middle linebacker question that has riddled this team throughout coach Joe Philbin’s tenure?
Both Vigil and Sheppard are hopeful they’re the answer. But Philbin during the week sounded as if we should expect more of the same platoon system against Jacksonville.
“We felt it worked relatively well during the game,” he said.
The way to maximize a middle linebacker is to set him in the middle of that defense and let him play and play and play. He gets better when he’s in the flow of the game. His anticipation improves. His understanding of the opponent improves.
“Definitely, you get into grooves in the game,” Sheppard said. “And that’s with any position. But definitely at the middle linebacker spot I think anticipation is one of the most underestimated traits of a good linebacker; being able to have that genuine feel that you feel comfortable hitting the gap and knowing something is going to happen. Once you get in the groove of the game that comes easier.”
The most likely way Sheppard or Vigil will be given the chance to play all the time this season is if one distinguishes himself over the other.
So the only way the Dolphins are going to solve their years-long middle linebacker problem is if someone truly raises his game — something not done on this team in years.
“The linebacker spot here has been a spot with a different player the last six years or whatever,” Sheppard said. “And it’s a spot where you look around and it’s like the staple of the defense. It’s like the quarterback on defense. I’m sure they would love that here to find the guy. I’m hoping I can be the one to give that to them.”