The Miami Dolphins will head into free agency in less than two months and they will have a lot of work to do. While it’s not ideal to build a team through free agency, the Dolphins have no choice but to fill a lot of their holes through this method. This is because there simply isn’t a lot of impact players at various positions in this year’s draft class. One position where this is evident is inside linebacker. None are sure fire first-round picks and if a team thinks they are, one can argue that drafting one at 14 overall is too high. This argument would simply support the notion that there are much better players that will be available such as a defensive tackle or wide receiver so there is no point in reaching for a need.
There are several options for the Dolphins at the inside linebacker position in free agency if they think they need to upgrade that area and move Koa Misi back to the outside. This past year, the Dolphins were banking on drafting an inside linebacker but when Ryan Shazier and CJ Mosley both went off the board before the Dolphins picked, they went to their next plan, which was drafting Ja’Wuan James, who showed tons of promise and looks to be the right tackle for the next decade barring any serious injuries.
To narrow this list down, we first need to be aware of who is set to become a free agent at the inside linebacker position. This can be found on our player tracker page. Next, we then need to figure out what players are worth pursuing. Based on the signature stats from Pro Football Focus, I put together a weighted formula that took run stop percentage, pass rush productivity, tackling efficiency and coverage into account. From there, I turned it into an overall grade and came up with a list of seven players the Dolphins should have on their short list if they feel they need an upgrade.
These players, ranked in order based off my weighted formula, are as follows: Rolando McClain, Nate Irving, Jasper Brinkley, Mason Foster, Brandon Spikes, Josh Mauga and David Harris.
We are now going to look at each category more in-depth and re-weight our formula afterwards to narrow down our list even more and figure out who the Dolphins should target if they do in fact want to replace Misi in the middle. We will rank the players in order in each category with one being the best and the highest number being the worst. Once all the categories are analyzed, we’ll do a new cumulative total and get our final list from there.
Run Stop Percentage
Since the Dolphins will be weighing whether or not to move Misi back to the outside and replace him in the middle with someone else, it’s important to see where he stands in each category. For this category, his run stop percentage was 6.9%. McClain graded out at 15.9%, Irving at 12.9%, Brinkley at 9.4%, Spikes at 8.9%, Mauga at 8%, Foster at 6.2% and Harris at 6.2%.
The run stop percentage is the percentage of a player’s run defense snaps where he was responsible for a stop. Therefore, it’s important to also look at the number of missed tackles they had to get an idea of how successful they were.
Misi missed three tackles. Spikes missed two, Harris missed two, Brinkley missed three, Foster missed four, McClain missed five, Irving missed six and Mauga missed a whopping 13. Of course, there are some other variables in play here but this gives us a good idea of what we are looking at and builds us a solid foundation to move forward.
Pass Rush Productivity
Pass rush productivity (PRP) is a formula that combines sacks, hits and hurries relative to how many times they rush the passer. Therefore, it’s not important to look at all the individual statistics within the percentage because that number will give us a good idea of what we are looking at. Misi was the seventh best inside linebacker in the NFL when it came to pass rush productivity. Compared to the free agent list, he is the second best with a PRP of 19.3%. McClain graded out at 20.3%, Irving at 12.5%, Foster at 11.8%, Brinkley at 11.7%, Mauga at 10.9%, Harris at 9.1% and Spikes at 6.7%.
Running Game Tackling Efficiency
The tackling efficiency in the running game is the total number of attempted tackles an inside linebacker made per each missed tackle in run defense. Again, we only need to look at the percentage here to get a good idea of what we are analyzing. Misi graded in at 16%. To compare to the free agent list, Harris graded in at 28%, Brinkley at 20.7%, Spikes at 20.5%, McClain at 10.8%, Foster at 9.5%, Mauga at 6.5% and Irving at 6.2%.
Passing Game Tackling Efficiency
The tackling efficiency in the passing game is the total number of attempted tackles an inside linebacker made per each missed tackle in pass defense. Again, we only need to look at the percentage here to get a good idea of what we are analyzing. Misi graded in at 8.3%. Brinkley was at 18%, Foster at 10%, Harris at 10%, McClain at 8.2%, Irving at 7.5%, Mauga at 5.1% and Spikes at 2.8%.
For this category, we are going to look at the yards per coverage snap allowed along with the amount of receptions allowed per coverage snap. These stats take into account whether or not the linebacker is the primary man in coverage. Let’s take a look at the yards per coverage snap first. Misi allowed 0.60 yards, Mauga allowed 0.59 yards, Spikes allowed 0.60 yards, Foster allowed 0.64 yards, Harris allowed 0.68 yards, McClain allowed 0.84 yards, Brinkley allowed 0.96 yards and Irving allowed 1.15 yards.
For the receptions allowed per coverage snap, Misi allowed 13.6. Brinkley allowed 8.9 yards, McClain allowed 10.5 yards, Irving allowed 12.4 yards, Harris allowed 12.7 yards, Mauga allowed 15.1 yards, Foster allowed 15.2 yards and Spikes allowed 15.9 yards.
With all this in mind, it’s time to calculate our final rankings. They are as follows with their final score in parenthesis: Jasper Brinkley (20), Rolando McClain (21), Koa Misi (22), David Harris (27), Nate Irving (29), Mason Foster (29), Brandon Spikes (31) and Josh Mauga (33)
Narrowing the field even more
Now that we've re-calculated everything after going more in-depth into the stats and grades, we can now narrow the field down even more. Since Misi is ranked third compared to the impending free agents, we will look at Brinkley, McClain, Harris and Spikes. It is my opinion that those players will be the only ones that would be an upgrade.
Brinkley will be 30 years old when the 2015 season begins and was a member of the Minnesota Vikings. He had an extremely good year under the direction of first year head coach Mike Zimmer. Zimmer is a defensive mind so one would think that he would want to do everything he can to keep Brinkley. However, that could also work against the Vikings. If Zimmer believes he is really great and scheming and developing players, he may think he has someone on the roster who is cheaper that he can develop into a quality inside linebacker.
McClain, who will turn 26 in July, is interesting because he was in and out of the NFL ever since he was drafted in 2010 as the eighth overall pick in the 2010 draft. He came to the Dallas Cowboys on a one-year-deal and proved to be one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL. However, it’s only one season. Was he motivated for a big contract or has he really turned the corner into an elite linebacker – the one the Oakland Raiders though t they were getting when they drafted him? As a columnist, we don’t have that kind of information but rest be assured the people in the Dolphins front office are making the right phone calls, talking to the right people and doing their due diligence on his background. This will be something that they will have to decide based on all the information they’ve gathered from various sources.
Harris will be 31 in just a few days so he only has a few good years left and already could be on the decline. However, he could be a good stop-gap for two years or so until the Dolphins find a stud in the draft. Here’s another interesting player because the New York Jets now have a defensive head coach in Todd Bowles. Will Bowles think he can develop players well enough that he doesn’t have to spend money on Harris or will he realize that Harris can be an integral part of his defense? That will remain to be seen.
Spikes will be 28 when the season begins but he is coming from the Buffalo Bills, where Rex Ryan just took over as head coach. We all know how Ryan loves his defense and how he thrives on having a stud linebacker. I do not expect Spikes to leave Buffalo but you never know. If Spikes doesn’t want to play in that city anymore, the Dolphins should look to lock him up if the other three players aren’t available.
Why not Irving, Foster and Mauga?
While Irving had a good grade, he only played nine weeks of the season before being placed on injured reserve with a sprained MCL. While he hasn’t had any injury history prior to this (he started all but three games in four years), I think general manager Dennis Hickey will feel snake-bitten by his free agent signings this year and will shy away from those with injury history.
Foster was another one who found himself on and off the injury report throughout the season, missing five weeks of the season. The Dolphins cannot afford to risk their money on those with an injury history, especially since this is a do-or-die year for Joe Philbin, Hickey and the rest of the coaches.
As far as Mauga goes, he had the worst grade of anyone and was inconsistent throughout the season, having more bad games than good games. He would not be an upgrade over Misi at the middle linebacker position.
Based on the final rankings and then taking age into account as well, I would target McClain, Spikes, Brinkley and Harris in that order. It's important to note though the concerns about McClain. If everything checks out on him after the Dolphins do their research, they should pursue him hard. If his off-field behavior and work ethic is too much concern for the front office and coaching staff, he should absolutely move off this list. With all that said, If the Dolphins can’t sign any of them, they should stick with Misi and look to draft an inside linebacker in the second or third round of the draft and work on developing him to take over in 2016, if not 2015.
This column was written by Matthew Cannata. Follow him on Twitter: @PhinManiacs