Monday, January 13, 2014

Season in Review: Linebacker

Throughout January, I'll be reviewing each position's performance for the Dolphins during the 2013 season, noting the good and the bad play and looking ahead at where the position stands for the 2014 season and beyond.

Dannell Ellerbe (59) and Philip Wheeler (52) both
joined the Dolphins as free agents in 2013.
Relevant 2013 Ranks:
Rush yards/carry allowed: 4.1 (18th)
Rush yards/game allowed: 124.9 (24th)
Rush touchdowns allowed: 14 (t-18th)
Fumble recoveries: 6 (t-28th)
TE receiving yards: 964 (25th)
TE receiving touchdowns: 9 (t-23rd)

Current Depth Chart:
WOLB: Philip Wheeler, Jelani Jenkins
MLB: Dannell Ellerbe, Jason Trusnik
SOLB: Koa Misi

Free Agents:
OLB Jonathan Freeny (ERFA)
MLB Austin Spitler (UFA)

The Dolphins made it a point to get younger at the linebacker position this offseason, parting ways with veterans Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett while signing free agents Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler.

I should say right now that I have no issues with moving on from Dansby and Burnett. People will point to Dansby's fantastic 2013 campaign with the Cardinals as evidence the Dolphins made a mistake, but I don't see it that way. Dansby got worse each season in Miami, showing up to camp overweight after the NFL lockout (ruining him for half the season) and growing ever more arrogant and delusional. As far as I'm concerned, getting cut by the Dolphins woke him up and helped him right the ship in Arizona, meaning the Dolphins could not have reasonably expected similar production from him in Miami this season.

That being said, while it was not a mistake ditching Dansby and Burnett, it was a mistake replacing them with Ellerbe and Wheeler, who turned out to be some of the biggest free agent busts in recent Dolphins history. Simply put, when discussing the Dolphins' defensive problems in 2013, it begins and ends with Ellerbe and Wheeler.

A former undrafted free agent out of Georgia, Ellerbe filled in admirably for Ray Lewis during the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl run and landed a five-year, $34.75 million contract from the Dolphins in the offseason. Replacing Dansby at middle linebacker, Ellerbe was a disaster, slow to react to play, taking horrible angles, moving with the agility of a disabled penguin and getting out-muscled by smaller players. He graded out 50th out of 55 in Pro Football Focus' inside linebacker rankings.

As bad as Ellerbe was, Wheeler was even worse. Coming off a strong season with the Raiders, Wheeler cashed in with a five-year, $26 million contract in Miami. His play was simply horrendous, as he too took terrible angles, missed tackles and often looked lost in coverage. The one area he showed well was rushing the passer, ranking behind only Von Miller among 4-3 outside linebackers with 23 hurries. Even still, PFF graded him as the worst 4-3 OLB in the league among 35 candidates.

Somewhat the forgotten man, Koa Misi is often invisible when watching games and will never be confused with a playmaker, but he's actually the best of his group thanks to his strong production against the run.

2014 Outlook

Thanks to the massive contracts handed to Ellerbe and Wheeler last offseason, it seems quite possible both return in 2014. Ellerbe would cost $11.6 million of dead money against the 2014 salary cap if released, while Wheeler would cost $10.6 million. Simply put, cutting either would actually give the Dolphins less cap room in 2014. (Thanks to for the numbers.)

That being said, I wouldn't rule out the possibility of Wheeler getting the ax this offseason. The Dolphins currently project to have about $38 million in cap space and could reach $50 million with some reasonable cuts elsewhere, meaning the team could handle losing about $4 million of that space by cutting Wheeler if they truly feel he has no place on the roster.

Ellerbe, who was slightly better than Wheeler, could then be given another year to earn his money and be cut in 2015 with cap savings if needed. Misi is signed reasonably at $1.7 million in 2014, but his salary jumps after that and he's signed through 2017.

If the Dolphins do decide to part with Wheeler, 2013 fifth-round pick Jelani Jenkins played 127 defensive snaps as a rookie and could potentially replace him on the weak side, though his overall upside is debatable. Bringing in another rookie or a short-term free agent to compete with Jenkins might be ideal.

Regardless of what the Dolphins do and when, it's clear that the current linebacker corps isn't long for the team. Ellerbe and Wheeler will need to be replaced at some point in the next year or two, while Misi is a fairly average player and could always be upgraded. While it's not a priority this offseason over, say, the offensive line, linebacker is certainly a position that's going to need an overhaul in the near future.