Fire up the week 17 tape of the victory over the Patriots and you’ll notice a common theme with the Miami defense. You’ll see linebackers flying to the ball, filing gaps and playing, far and away, their best games of the season. Neville Hewitt was everywhere stopping the run and even shielding Rob Gronkowski on a few plays. Even the perineal useless Kelvin Sheppard played one hell of a game.
This position has been where the Dolphins have been abysmal in recent years. There are a lot of new faces in town and some new names Dolphins fans need to grow accustomed to. It’s been widely speculated that the defense might switch to a 3-4 alignment but I think that the lack of depth and ability with this group is what caused Vance Joseph to stick with the 4-3 base look.
Since this is the shortest list on the defensive side of the ball, I suppose we can include the kickers and long snapper in this piece as well.
These are the linebackers of the 2016 Miami Dolphins.
Weak side (Will) Linebacker: #53 Jelani Jenkins –
Jenkins was playing at an all-pro level through the first half of the 2014 season. At his best, he’s an instinctive linebacker that can cover backs and tight ends, support in the run game and be an effective timely blitzer. Since Thanksgiving of ’14, he’s been a late reactor that spends more time chasing plays than blowing up the offense downhill. He needs to have a bounce back 2016.
Middle (Mike) Linebacker: #47 Kiko Alonso –
A healthy Alonso is the prototypical middle linebacker for the wide nine, mostly man scheme the Dolphins defense will employ. He’s extremely rangy with the ability to drop into coverage and play sideline to sideline. He’s a natural ball hawk (four interceptions in his rookie year) but has struggled to stay healthy since then. He missed all of 2014 and five games last year.
Strong side (Sam) Linebacker: #55 Koa Misi –
For the fifth consecutive year, the Dolphins will make the mistake or relying upon a guy that gets injured taking his dog for a walk to play a significant amount of snaps. If Misi makes it through the season without hitting the injury list, it would be a miracle. When healthy, he’s a viable run stuffer that plays downhill and is a reliable tackler. I strongly disagree with this idea, but he very well could be the second option inside when (not if) Alonso misses some time.
Eventual Starter: #46 Neville Hewitt –
Normally I develop man-crushes on wide receivers, but Hewitt’s week 17 tape has me tickled with optimism. The natural instincts are clearly there, he reads the line to get to the back and as I mentioned earlier, he went stride for stride with Gronk a few times. He’s a sound tackler that arrives with force and plays with a high motor. He should be starting somewhere on this team week one, but he will eventually get an opportunity and I fully expect him to seize it.
Special Teams/Fifth Linebacker: #57 Tyler Gray –
Boise State used Tyler Gray across all formations last year and he became a free flowing tackler with a knack for finding the football. Pro Football Focus graded him as the fifth best linebacker in college football last season and he plays with a massive chip on his shoulder. This linebacker group is full of guys that make you shrug your shoulders, so why not the undrafted rookie?
Practice Squad: #44 Akil Blount –
As far as blood lines go, Akil is in good company. The son of Mel Blount plays with the same mentality and is incredibly fleet of foot helping his coverage skills immensely (two interceptions returned for touchdowns last year at Florida A&M.) Between Blount and Gray, one of them will make this roster – I’ll bet on that.
Practice Squad: #43 James Burgess –
Perhaps a bit undersized for linebacker, Burgess has the range the Dolphins covet at the middle linebacker position but might want to give him a couple of years to add some size. He has the frame to do it and the work ethic to match.
Camp Casualty: #42 Spencer Paysinger –
Paysinger knows his place on the football team as a special team’s ace, but I hope the Dolphins desire more. There’s no reason any of the three rookies ahead of him can’t make an impact on special teams while developing their skills to play with the first team defense.
Camp Casualty: #45 Mike Hull –
He started on the practice squad, got a cup of coffee around Thanksgiving and then was cut and signed back to the practice squad. Playing at Penn State earned him a lot of praise, but his limited rookie snaps made him look completely over-matched.
Camp Casualty: #49 Zach Vigil –
If Hull was overwhelmed, Vigil was in the middle of a dense forest without a compass. The game appeared too fast for him and, like Hull, he’s a product of a previous regime and staff.
Camp Casualty: #56 James Michael-Johnson –
On his sixth team in five years, JMJ had a partial breakthrough in 2014 with the Chiefs but suffered an injury with the Jaguars in 2015 and hasn’t regained that potential form.
The Dolphins are counting on 1500 plus snaps from two guys that are most known for missing games. I am really excited about the young linebackers on the roster but it may be another year or two before we can expect serious production from them. Neville Hewitt is my pick to click this year as a guy that come from nowhere and make a major impact. This is a very sub-par linebacking corps and could be the Achilles heel of the 2016 Dolphins.
Place Kicker: #7 Marshall Koehn –
I dedicate absolutely no time to scouting kickers but the OTA reports were that Koehn consistently outkicked Andrew Franks. Koehn ran a faster 40 than 10 different wide outs at the combine, is 6’0’’, 195 pounds and made a higher percentage of his kicks at Iowa than Franks did with the Dolphins last year.
Punter: #4 Matt Darr –
Darr had a good rookie season after displacing long-tenured Dolphin Brandon Fields last year. He does the only two things I care about with a punter: kicks the ball high and deep and earns a minimum contract.
Long Snapper: #92 John Denney –
The only hold-over from the Nick Saban regime, Denney has been with this team since I was in high school. He’s also frequently the first man to jump on a loose ball when the opposing punt returner coughs it up.
Camp Casualty: #3 Andrew Franks –
Franks went just 13 for 16 kicking field goals last year and missed three extra points. Six misses is okay when you’re kicking 40 field goals and your name is Justin Tucker, but that’s simply not good enough, rook.
Camp Casualty: #59 Ryan Disalvo –
Anyone that tells you they know anything about this guy’s long snapping skills is lying to you. Maybe he beats out Denney, but no one has accomplished that feat in 11 years.
Special teams have been a bit of a rollercoaster for this team and it’s a mystery how Darren Rizzi survived the coaching over-haul. Jarvis Landry’s exceptional punt return ability, Matt Darr’s kicking and Michael Thomas being an absolute stud of a kick cover man may have saved Rizzi’s job. Jakeem Grant and Kenyan Drake should add even more electricity to the return game as both made a habit of taking kickoffs back for scores in college.
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