Georgia’s Roquan Smith remains the best and most logical option if the Dolphins select a linebacker with their first-round pick, 11th overall, in April’s draft.
But there are other linebackers who also have piqued Miami’s interest.
Among them: Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch, a 6-4, 240-pounder who last season produced exceptional numbers -- 141 tackles (including 7.5 for loss), plus four sacks, three interceptions and four forced fumbles.
“If you put his tape on against Oregon, it’s as good an off-the-ball tape I’ve seen in years,” NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said. “He goes sideline to sideline and is great in the pass game.”
That last part is key, because the Dolphins need a linebacker who’s equipped to cover tight ends and running backs.
The problem is that Vander Esch could go somewhere between the Dolphins’ picks in the first and second round.
But if Miami trades down in the first round or acquires another pick, he would be a sensible option.
Here’s how Mayock assesses the top linebackers in this class, heading into this week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis:
“I think we’re going to get three or four in the first round, which would be Tremaine Edmunds, Roquan Smith, perhaps Leighton Vander Esch, who I’m intrigued by, and perhaps Rashaan Evans. After that, I think Uchenna Nwosu from USC is an intriguing guy. He was primarily an edge rusher, is probably going to have to do what Haason Reddick did a year ago out of Temple, which is stand up, play off-the-ball linebacker and perhaps be used in the subpackages as kind of a joker rusher.
“Nwosu is really interesting. Jerome Baker from Ohio State is probably going to go to the combine and run 4.5 at 225 pounds. Now, he’s a physical specimen. He can run. Some of his tape is inconsistent. I didn’t like the Iowa tape at all, but I think there were some mitigating circumstances. He can fly.
“Darius Leonard, South Carolina State. Another sideline-to-sideline player, good in the pass game. This Fred Warner from BYU, same thing. He can run. I think there is a logical, off-the-ball linebackers for the first two, three, four rounds.”
Smith would be a natural fit for a 4-3 defense like Miami’s, and he’s perhaps the player most linked to the Dolphins’ pick at No. 11, though it’s uncertain if he will available at that spot.
“I love Roquan Smith, and I think he’s today’s NFL off-the-ball linebacker,” Mayock said. “It’s mostly about speed. You know, he’s 225 pounds. Deon Jones was drafted in the second round in Atlanta two years ago, and he’s been the prototype.
“I think Roquan Smith takes it a step further. Very similar type guy. I love the way he plays. I didn’t even know who he was the first tape I put in. I think it was Notre Dame-Georgia and he just jumped off the tape. I got excited sitting there going, ‘who is this guy?’
But Mayock doesn’t believe Virginia Tech’s Edmunds is ideally suited for a 4-3 defense like Miami’s.
“In a 3-4, he’s an inside linebacker and he’d be great there,” Mayock said. “He also has a scary skill set as an edge rusher, which he did a little bit at Virginia Tech, and I know for sure he’s working on that now. So I see incredible upside. I see an off-the-ball linebacker, I think some of the three, four teams could look at him and say he could be a 3-4 outside linebacker, in addition to being a 3-4 inside linebacker. Right now what I say is a starting-off-the-ball linebacker and a potential sub at edge rusher. He’s got a skill set. I don’t use this word often, but he has a skill set that’s unique.”
As for Alabama’s Evans, Mayock believes he could go “late one or early two. He is a great off-the-ball linebacker. He can run, shows up in coverage, comes downhill, tackles. He’s going either late one to early two.”
Linebacker is a greater need for Miami than defensive end, and there might not be a natural defensive end option in the Dolphins’ range at No. 11 unless they fall in love with Texas San Antonio’s Marcus Davenport, who Mayock said is suited for a 4-3 defense.
Mayock said “Arden Key from LSU is a really talented kid with some off-the-field issues.” He also could be an edge rusher in a 4-3 but picking him 11th seems too high.
The Dolphins need to add a starting linebacker to replace soon-to-be-released Lawrence Timmons. That addition could come via free agency, the draft or both.
Miami also must protect itself in case Raekwon McMillan suffers a setback after his major knee injury. The Dolphins say McMillan should be ready to participate in the team’s offseason program.
We had lots of draft-and-veteran QB talk in this Tuesday post, including a list of the 28 veteran quarterbacks about to become free agents. Another name that can be added to the list: Mike Glennon, who has 34 touchdowns, 20 interceptions and an 83.2 career rating. The Bears said Wednesday they will release him.