With week two of Dolphins OTA’s in full throttle, I wanted to continue our look at which position battles should garner the most interest. I previously wrote about the offensive line and the cornerbacks spots. Today we will be taking a look at the linebacker battles going on.
The departure of Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler is a gratifying change to many Dolfans. Ellerbe was the key piece in the trade with the New Orleans Saints that brought Kenny Stills to Miami. That trade gave the Dolphins the flexibility needed to deal Mike Wallace. Wheeler was a cap casualty to help make room for free agent addition Ndamukong Suh. With this much change, the young linebackers on the team have a real shot at key starting positions.
Mike Hull and Zach Vigil are early fan favorites. Even though they were signed by the Dolphins as undrafted free agents many Dolfans have high expectations. Hull comes highly decorated as the 2014 Big Ten linebacker of the year. He is smart and patient on run assignments and has great tackling form. The knock on Hull is size and athleticism. He isn’t the fastest guy out there and leaves more to be desired in the weight room. I believe he needs a year with the Dolphins strength and conditioning program before he can contribute regularly at a high level. Vigil has great size and was very productive for Utah State. He is seen as having an unstoppable motor and is regarded to never quit on a play. He needs to become more instinctive and needs to improve on his ability to slip blocks.
Another UDFA fan favorite is hometown boy Jeff Luc. Luc played middle linebacker for the Cincinnati Bearcats and is a weight room warrior with a nose for the ball. He has a strong base and enough speed to get after the quarterback or stuff the run in the backfield. His biggest knock is technique, many scouts believe he runs “too upright” and that limits his impact on tackles. Luc is another player I believe can benefit greatly from the coaching staff molding him for a year. Well known is the Dolphins hesitancy to play rookies for significant minutes, so unless they really turn heads during camp, I expect the jobs to go to more seasoned veterans.
Kelvin Sheppard is going on his fifth year in the league, second with Miami. He was a solid contributor to the Buffalo Bills defense during his first two years. Sheppard’s strength is his run stuffing, which is something the Dolphins needed desperately last year (finished 24th in the league.) Sheppard has flashed during OTA’s and has even shown improvement in pass coverage, breaking up a Ryan Tannehill pass yesterday during practice. Dolphins’ defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle praised the development of Sheppard after practice and they currently have him rotating between Jelani Jenkins and Koa Misi.
Misi was plagued by injuries last year and was a complete letdown to the coaching staff who boasted about moving him to middle linebacker in the preseason. This will be his sixth season with the Dolphins and his strengths and weaknesses are no secret. If healthy, I believe Misi can be a consistent contributor at outside linebacker or on the strong side. I just don’t see him as an inside linebacker. That position better fits Jelani Jenkins. Jenkins led the team in tackles last year and was heralded by the Dolphins' staff for his pass coverage capabilities. He is going on his third year with the Dolphins after being selected in the fourth round of the 2013 draft. The former Florida Gator looks comfortable in the Miami heat and didn’t sweat having to step in to the starting role as a young player.
Jordan Tripp and Chris McCain are the players who interest me the most out of the group. Tripp was selected in the fifth round by the Dolphins in 2014 but was plagued by a chest injury early on his rookie season. He also had some ankle/ foot problems towards the end of the season. Tripp played outside linebacker in college but many think he has the skill-set to play inside. McCain was signed as an undrafted free agent. He saw some field time last year but will hopefully get more of a chance now. McCain is long and athletic and can really chase the quarterback in pass rushing situations. With his size, he has even dropped down to the defensive end position at various times.
Spenser Paysinger signed a one year contract with the Dolphins this season. He comes via the New York Giants where in 2013 he saw 81 snaps of game action. He held his own during that time but was relegated to special teams by the Giants in 2014. Before signing with the Dolphins, Paysinger stated that he did his homework on the Dolphins and saw that he could get an opportunity.
The competition this year will be tough with the glaring the needs the Dolphins have at linebacker. Luckily they have a stable of young hungry players that are jumping at the chance to start.
This column was written by Pablo Gomez. Follow him on Twitter: @PabloGRadio
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