Friday, March 23, 2012

Dolphins hosting free agent LB Philip Wheeler

In wake of fan outrage over the lack of a big-name quarterback signing, the Miami Dolphins continue to explore options in other areas of the roster and will host free agent linebacker Philip Wheeler on Saturday, according to Jason La Canfora.

A third-round pick out of Georgia Tech by the Indianapolis Colts in 2008, Wheeler has missed just three games in four pro seasons and has 24 career starts under his belt, including a career-high 11 in 2011. Despite missing three games this past season, Wheeler set or tied personal bests with 84 tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble.

Wheeler graded out as Pro Football Focus' No. 12 outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme in 2011, earning his best marks as a run stuffer while missing only five tackles on the season. Although he graded out slightly below average in coverage, he allowed just 17 receptions for 138 yards and no touchdowns.

Although he primarily played the weak outside linebacker position with the Colts in 2011, Wheeler spent the previous two seasons seeing extensive playing time on the strong side.

The Dolphins likely have a vacancy at a starting linebacker spot with a shift to the 4-3 defensive scheme. Pass rusher Cameron Wake will move to defensive end, while 2009 second-rounder Koa Misi is looking less and less like a starting talent.

Although Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett both have experience on the weak side in a 4-3 scheme, I expect a Wheeler signing would allow the Dolphins to keep either Dansby or Burnett (likely Dansby) in the middle linebacker spot as the "quarterback" of the defense.

There has been talk this offseason of working Misi in the middle given his inability to rush the passer over his first two pro seasons, but I'm skeptical of his ability to start in any scheme and Wheeler would present a clear upgrade. He also should come fairly cheap, as a comparable player like Erin Henderson (PFF's No. 4 outside linebacker in 2011) just re-signed with the Minnesota Vikings on a one-year, $2 million deal.

The addition of Wheeler would also further solidify a very strong Miami front-seven. The entire linebacker corps would be more than solid, and three-fourths of the defensive line is already set as well. Another pass rusher would remain the Dolphins' biggest need and would be under strong consideration at the team's No. 8 pick in April's draft.

The Dolphins currently have roughly $7.4 million in cap space with 58 players on their offseason roster and three restricted/exclusive-rights free agents still needing to be re-signed. They could create more cap room by trimming some salaries (such as that of Tony McDaniel) or by extending the contract of offensive tackle Jake Long.

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