A major need in the eyes of many fans going into this year's offseason was the middle linebacker position, as the team hasn't had a truly good linebacker in the middle since Karlos Dansby in 2012. Dansby was shipped out of Miami by the front office when the organization decided to go forward with a youth movement, replacing Dansby with current New Orleans Saints linebacker Dannell Ellerbe.
After Ellerbe failed to truly make an impact, putting up an overall ProFootballFocus rating of -13.5 during his 16 games starting at middle linebacker in 2013, he was moved to the outside and versatile linebacker Koa Misi took the reins.
For Misi, this was completely uncharted territory, as coming out of college he was used as an outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid, who had skills in pass-rushing rather than running the defense from the middle of the field. However, he took on the challenge with everything he is, using his spare time to study the nuances of playing in the middle, and for the most part, it produced results.
Misi did well for the most part, putting together a PFF rating of +8.9 in the games he played, and made 64 tackles, 1 sack and 1 pass defended. He was never spectacular, but he was good enough that he was a clear and obvious upgrade over Ellerbe. His biggest issue was not his play while he was healthy, it was just staying healthy to begin with.
The 28-year old Misi battled ankle, knee and hamstring injuries all throughout the season, limiting his time on the field as well as his efficiency, and that led fans to feel that Misi was unreliable moving forward as the middle linebacker for 2015.
There were candidates to replace the six-year veteran in the draft this year, like Eric Kendricks, Paul Dawson and Denzel Perryman. Perryman in particular actually expected to be drafted by the Dolphins, but the team decided instead to draft defensive tackle Jordan Phillips out of Oklahoma, which led Perryman to make comments about the idea of playing his hometown team after they decided to pass him over.
Perryman's appeal came from his ability to stop the run and be a heavy-hitter, similar to former Dolphins legend Zach Thomas, but the Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin has never been shy about stating how he felt about Misi, and recently stated that he felt that his injuries hindered what he could really do.
But was passing over Perryman and sticking with Misi the right move? If you look at it in a vacuum, then it's definitely debatable, but there's a serious factor that can't be ignored when making this decision. That's the addition of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
“Suh’s an animal,” Misi recently said. “He’s hands down one of the best in the league. He takes up another guy, so basically it allows us to move around a little bit better.”
The addition of Suh is projected to make the entire defense better, as his impact will force opposing teams to use at least two blockers on him at all times, which will open up the door for players like Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon to get to the quarterback easier, set the edge more efficiently, and elevate the play of the secondary.
Oh, and it will help Misi and the other linebackers with their play as well.
The Dolphins (and the fans) should feel confident about their linebackers, not just because of the fact that Misi did well when he was healthy, but because Suh, and now Mosley, who teamed up to form the NFL's greatest run defense last season, will be able to elevate the play of everyone else around them.
Suh in the middle means that running backs will have a much more difficult finding a hole to run through, receivers and tight ends will have to work much harder to make catches since their QBs will be under a lot more pressure, and as a result, the Dolphins linebacker corps will have a much lighter workload.
For Misi, that means running the defense will be easier, his ability to cover and stop the run will be elevated, and the true kicker to all this: Misi will hopefully be able to stay healthy thanks to the fact that he won't have to do as much with Suh taking up more space.
But what happens if Misi gets hurt? Not to worry. While clearly not as talented as Misi, veteran linebacker Kelvin Sheppard has experience starting at middle linebacker, and the team has three talented undrafted free agents in Zach Vigil, Jeff Luc and Mike Hull who are battling for a spot on the roster. Vigil in particular has pulled ahead early, and there's no telling what he'll do once training camp starts.
The Dolphins should be more than set at middle linebacker thanks to all the investment that's been put in the defensive line, and the entire linebacker corps as a whole will be better as well. Jenkins has the WLB spot locked down, and second-year linebacker Chris McCain is making a strong showing at SLB so far. With Misi - although Philbin hasn't publicly stated Misi will get the job, per his usual approach - the defense seems set. Bottom line: Yes, the Dolphins are set at middle linebacker.
This story was written by Luis Sung. Follow him on Twitter: @FLSportDebater
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