Barry Jackson

One of the Dolphins’ biggest problems and the player who could help fix it

Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce catches a touchdown pass in front of Dolphins safety Reshad Jones in a Christmas Eve game. The Dolphins were among the NFL’s worst teams defending opposing tight ends in pass coverage.
Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce catches a touchdown pass in front of Dolphins safety Reshad Jones in a Christmas Eve game. The Dolphins were among the NFL’s worst teams defending opposing tight ends in pass coverage. jsleezer@kcstar.com

No team in the NFL was worse covering tight ends than the Dolphins. The gruesome statistics show that.

And ESPN’s Todd McShay believes Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith is well equipped to solve that problem, which I believe is as big as any of Miami’s shortcomings.

McShay said Smith has the skill set to defend modern tight ends and would be a good fit for the Dolphins with the 11th overall pick.

"He's the most athletic linebacker in this class," McShay told me. "He's a guy who fits perfect. A will linebacker. Can play off the line. Can cover, can rush a little bit too from sideline to sideline. He would be a perfect fit if that's how it works out."

Mel Kiper’s take on Smith, who is slotted 15th on his ESPN.com Big Board: "At 6-1, 225, he's extremely athletic. He can get sideline to sideline in a hurry. A season after having 95 total tackles and five tackles for loss, Smith [had 137 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks]. He can blitz up the middle or off the edge, and I think he could play inside or outside linebacker. He's just a fun player to watch."

Pro Football Focus said Smith was the nation’s second-best linebacker in pass coverage this season and missed only 15 of his 238 career tackle attempts. 

It’s critical that whatever linebacker replaces Lawrence Timmons be skilled in coverage primarily because of this factoid: This past season, the Dolphins allowed 94 catches by tight ends (most in the league) and 1034 receiving yards against tight ends (only Oakland – at 1038 – relinquished more).

What’s more, opposing tight ends scored 10 touchdowns against the Dolphins, tied with Cleveland for second-most and behind only the Giants (13).

McShay said FSU safety Derwin James, also projected for Miami’s draft range, "is a little bit of a different player but definitely can cover tight ends. He can play near the line, defend the run but also can cover. He brings a lot of versatility. Those [Smith, James] are two of the best players at those specific type of positions."

But drafting James would be position overlap with Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald, and McDonald said the idea of playing linebacker – an idea broached by a few media pundits – has never been mentioned to him anywhere he has played. He’s comfortable at safety, and at 6-2, 223 is clearly best suited for safety.

The Dolphins have made a longterm investment in McDonald. That wouldn’t preclude drafting James, but it would create challenges.

McDonald told me he would love the opportunity cover tight ends more and believes he could do it well.

Whatever the solution, the Dolphins must find one and cannot go into next season expecting Kiko Alonso to handle the bulk of those tight end assignments.

There was a clear correlation last season between winning and defending tight ends.

Consider this: The six teams who allowed the most yards against tight ends (Raiders, Dolphins, Broncos, Redskins, Giants, Texans) went a combined 31-65 and all missed the playoffs.

Of the nine teams that allowed the most catches to tight ends, all but Buffalo had losing records. And the three teams that gave up the fewest yards to tight ends (Saints, Panthers, Vikings) went a combined 35-13.

Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke said this is a problem Miami must solve.

• Kiper’s Big Board, ranking players but without specific teams, has this top 15: 1) Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, 2) Alabama safety/cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick, 3) North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb; 4) UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, 5) Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold, 6) FSU’s James, 7) Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson, 8) Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell, 9) Clemson defensive end/tackle Christian Wilkins, 10) Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley, 11) Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen, 12) Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward, 13) Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, 14) Virginia Tech outside linebacker Tremaine Edmunds; 15) Georgia’s Smith.

Since Kiper released this board, Ferrell has said he is returning to Clemson for his senior season.

Edmunds also could emerge as a Dolphins possibility at No. 11.

"At 6-5, 250 pounds, Edmunds is a gifted athlete and physical specimen, and he lives in the backfield," Kiper said on ESPN.com. "A year after recording 106 total tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, he [had] 102 total tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks this season. Edmunds isn't a traditional linebacker; he could play inside in a pinch and disrupt some throwing lanes, and he could also play outside and pressure quarterbacks. He even does a good job covering pass-catchers out of the backfield. He's an impressive athlete, and you could make a case that Edmunds has the most upside of any linebacker in this class."

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