NFL teams aren’t able to pull it off very often. Finding the right time to replace a contributing but aging veteran is a difficult task.
Franchises sometimes try to squeeze all the football out of their veterans they can, until one day, once solid, sometimes even Pro Bowl caliber players simply have nothing left to give. And the team is stuck with a player that is no longer himself but is still being paid like the player he used to be.
In other circumstances, general managers wisely look to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to older starters, but that usually entails cutting ties with a proven veteran and replacing him with a rookie that is a huge question mark.
Dolphins’ GM Jeff Ireland was able to avoid both scenarios when it came to linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett- two solid but aging veterans whose play could have begun to taper off at any time.
Out with the old, in with the new. The Dolphins replaced Dansby and Burnett with Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler – two up-and-coming linebackers that are still in their primes – in free agency. Moves that appear to make the Dolphins faster, more athletic, and more attacking on defense.
Miami wants to create more impact plays on the defensive side of the ball this season. Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle is expected to employ more blitzes and more zone coverage with his linebackers. Younger, fresher legs were in order for the altered scheme.
Choosing to remodel a productive linebacker corps from a year ago isn’t void of risk, however. Unloading $56 million for two new players is always a concern. Who knows if the Dolphins will be getting the linebackers they paid for, as complacency and new surroundings are always factors that can lead to marquee free agents becoming busts.
But the Dolphins think they’ve caught two players on the rise and cut ties with two players on the verge of decline. A bold move. A risky move. But a move that could pay off in a big way for a decent defense that is looking to emerge as one of the league’s best in 2013.
Weakside Linebacker: Phillip Wheeler
Middle Linebacker: Dannell Ellerbe
Strongside Linebacker: Koa Misi
There isn’t expected to be much competition for any starting jobs at linebacker this summer. Koa Misi is the only player that could conceivably be in trouble with poor play. But Misi was much better than people gave him credit for in 2012 and I think the Dolphins are higher on him than many realize.
Misi benefited from the Dolphins’ switch to a 4-3 scheme and only needs to fine tune his coverage skills in order to become a solid player. He’s also in the last year of his rookie contract, which means Misi should be eager to prove he deserves a multi-year deal with a starter’s salary next offseason.
Solid Starters: Dannell Ellerbe, Phillip Wheeler
League average: Koa Misi
Backup material: Austin Spitler, Jelani Jenkins (R) Jonathan Freeny, Jason Trusnik, Josh Kaddu
Camp bodies: Lee Robinson, Michael Clay (R), David Hinds (R), Alonzo Highsmith (R)
I don’t see either Ellerbe or Wheeler being at elite status yet. Both certainly are talented, and if this was a prediction and not a snapshot of where each player currently is, I would maybe even venture to project Ellerbe as an elite talent in his first full season as a starter. But there are just too many uncertainties right now to say either Ellerbe or Wheeler can elevate their games to that level.
Don’t sleep on Koa Misi solidifying himself as a solid player this season. Like I said above, Misi actually started to catch on in 2012 as a 4-3 outside linebacker. Don’t be surprised if resigning Misi becomes a priority for the Dolphins next offseason if he’s able to prove last season was no fluke.
Rookie fourth-round pick Jelani Jenkins and second-year player Josh Kaddu are two unknowns. Jenkins was said to be one of the top cover linebackers in the entire draft so it will be interesting to see if the Dolphins allow him to get some looks in the team’s nickel package. As for Kaddu, a fifth-round selection out of Oregon in the 2012 draft, the Dolphins may experiment with him as a pass rusher this year. Kaddu is a bit of a tweener at the moment, but the Dolphins seem fairly high on his upside.
And of course, the big wildcard here is third-overall pick Dion Jordan. Make no mistake about it, the Dolphins drafted Jordan to rush the passer as a defensive end assuming they stay put in a 4-3 system. But he does have the athleticism to play standing up as a linebacker regardless of scheme. Moving Jordan around should at least be considered in order to get an athlete of his caliber on the field as much as possible.
(Scale: Super Bowl caliber, playoff caliber, middle of the road, below league average, poor)
Outside Linebacker: Middle of the road
Koa Misi and Phillip Wheeler are both coming off the best statistical seasons of their careers. But Misi needs to continue to grow and demonstrate consistency in his second season in the 4-3 defense.
And Wheeler has to prove last year’s solid performance with the Raiders is closer to who is than the four underwhelming seasons he spent in Indianapolis. Because if there is any free agent acquisition the Dolphins made this offseason with high bust potential, it’s Wheeler.
But Wheeler and Misi certainly have the ability to become a playoff-caliber duo at outside linebacker in 2013.
Middle Linebacker: Playoff caliber
There is a reason the Baltimore Ravens were devastated when news broke Dannell Ellerbe had signed with the Dolphins. The Super Bowl champs thought they had their heir apparent to Ray Lewis. And not just anyone is considered a worthy candidate to replace a future Hall of Famer and one of the greatest middle linebackers the NFL has ever seen.
But Ellerbe’s dominance filling in for Lewis as he recovered from a torn triceps last season and then eventually playing with him side-by side during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run, made the former Georgia Bulldog a valued free agent. And much to everyone’s surprise and the Ravens’ dismay, the Dolphins were able to sign Ellerbe during the opening hours of free agency.
So instead of replacing Ray Lewis, Ellerbe replaces Karlos Dansby in Miami. Tiny shoes to fill by comparison. I expect Ellerbe to fill them and much more, as he improves an already stingy Dolphins’ run defense.
The addition of Ellerbe is a huge reason why the Dolphins suddenly have the potential to be an elite defense in 2013. But he needs to prove he can be productive for an entire 16-game season before anyone proclaims him as an elite or Super Bowl caliber middle linebacker.
Linebacker corps: Playoff caliber
Looking at the Dolphins’ linebacker corps as a whole, it’s hard to downplay the unit’s potential. Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett were solid veterans. But they don’t play the game with the speed or tenacity Ellerbe and Wheeler played with last season.
Will that be sustained after each of them signed multi-year contracts? That is a mystery unfortunately and simply the nature of the beast when attempting to make significant improvements through free agency.
But at least on paper, the Dolphins’ linebackers look to be a faster, more athletic unit in 2013. And I expect the defense as a whole to play with more energy and create more turnovers and pressure as a result.