Why the Dolphins' Quest for Linebacker Help Is Already Solved

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Why the Dolphins' Quest for Linebacker Help Is Already Solved
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When the Miami Dolphins spent $61 million on linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler in the 2013 free agency period, the team figured they’d be set for the foreseeable future at the position.

After all, Ellerbe was coming off a strong Super Bowl run for the Baltimore Ravens, and Wheeler showed terrific pass rush abilities with the Oakland Raiders. The duo joined Koa Misi, who has been a solid strong side linebacker for the Dolphins since he joined the team. 

The results in 2013 were devastating to the Dolphins defense.

Despite having a breakout season from defensive lineman Olivier Vernon and Randy Starks, the linebackers couldn’t cover tight ends or receivers. Against the run, Ellerbe and Wheeler lacked the instincts to read and react to the play with any efficiency.

According to Omar Kelly of the Sun Sentinel, Ellerbe struggled with a number of injuries in 2013, most notably a shoulder injury. That’s a fair excuse for Ellerbe’s performance because, as the middle linebacker, powerful lead guards on run plays often hit him. He showed tremendous toughness and leadership to stay on the field, even if his play was subpar.

But what was Wheeler’s excuse?

While watching Wheeler with the Oakland Raiders in 2012, it’s easy to see why the Dolphins wanted to grab the speedy pass-rusher.

He created 13 quarterback hurries, hit the quarterback 14 times and logged three sacks. Wheeler also missed just nine tackles, good enough for the 10th-best mark among 26 qualifying 4-3 outside linebackers.

In his first season with the Dolphins, Wheeler became a full-time starter, and opposing offenses salivated at the opportunity to pick on him.

Wheeler again combined for 27 quarterback disturbances, which includes 23 quarterback hurries and four hits on the quarterback, but he logged just one sack.

In 1,054 snaps, Wheeler hit the quarterback just five times. That is not acceptable for any starting linebacker.

The Dolphins couldn’t replace Wheeler in free agency, though, as the list of available free agents brought no guaranteed improvements. And they missed on targets Ryan Shazier and C.J. Mosley in the NFL draft, so they addressed other needs with their available picks.

After the draft is an ideal time to sign rookies who were passed over due to medical, character or talent concerns. Despite being a long shot to make the final 53-man roster, the team invests (relatively) very little for potential diamonds in the rough.

At the very least, the rookies are considered depth and get waived eventually.

Enter Chris McCain.

McCain was signed nearly one week after the first batch of undrafted free agents (UDFA) were signed, so he wasn’t even considered a priority free agent.

The pass-rusher from Cal primarily played defensive end for a bad Cal Bears defensive unit, but he was kicked off the team in late September 2013. Because of the lack of film and his character concerns, McCain went under the radar through the draft process.

One training camp and four preseason games later, McCain has made the Dolphins’ 53-man roster. But that’s not the end of his story, if the Dolphins’ coaches are willing to play the budding linebacker over more veteran options.

In fact, McCain should be considered the answer to the Dolphins’ biggest question: Who will step up as a playmaker at linebacker?

Year Player Snaps Overall Grade Pass-Rush Grade Coverage Grade Run Grade Overall Rank
2013 Philip Wheeler 1054 -19.5 3.0 -8.2 -13.9 35/35
2014 Preseason Philip Wheeler 69 -4.0 1.0 -2.0 -2.0 77/81
2014 Preseason Chris McCain 102 11.4 9.6 0.0 1.8 1/81


As you can see in the table above, McCain’s 102 snaps have been much more productive than Wheeler’s 69 total defensive plays in the preseason.

McCain has been effective no matter where he lines up, which provides the Dolphins defense much more versatility with their personnel than with Wheeler. Just in Weeks 3 and 4 against the Dallas Cowboys and St. Louis Rams, respectively, McCain saw snaps at all edge-rush positions. That includes weak-side linebacker and defensive end, and strong-side linebacker and end.

McCain played his best at the outside linebacker positions because of his ability to control his body in space. Whether moving laterally or vertically, McCain can keep his head up so that he’s alert to the ball. Once he recognizes the play, which is at a faster rate than what Wheeler has shown in his time in Miami, he reacts seamlessly.

There’s no pause in his movement toward the ball-carrier. He’s decisive in his movements. That can lead to hard bites on play actions, but as his repetitions increase, he can improve his discipline on such plays.

NFL.com
McCain (No. 47) earns free looks in the backfield from his effort and decisiveness

When watching Wheeler in space, he seems unsure of what to do. His ball awareness is nonexistent, so he’s forced to rush the passer nearly every play. McCain doesn’t have that issue, based on preseason film.

The most impressive feature of McCain’s attacks on the line of scrimmage is his physicality. McCain embraces the contact and explodes through it. His hands are powerful enough to knock an offensive tackle off balance, and he has enough quickness to get around the stunned lineman.

In the example below, McCain is coming off the edge, and he will slam into the fullback, which allows the middle linebacker to make the tackle on the ball-carrier. That’s textbook execution by each player.

NFL.com
McCain (wearing sleeves) perfectly executes his play assignment

So which linebacker position does McCain fit best?

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As the weak-side linebacker, McCain will be responsible for “cleaning up” plays from behind and rushing the passer. Straight-line speed and hip flexibility are extremely valuable. Take a look at this GIF, which shows McCain sprinting through the B-gap and nearly tackling the running back for a loss.

He didn’t make the tackle, but he flashes the physical traits to make a difficult play. That’s the potential Miami must invest more into.

If he plays on the strong side, he will have to play against the run stoutly and be able to cover tight ends.

McCain also has the foot speed and hip flexibility to turn and run with tight ends. In a division with Rob Gronkowski, Jace Amaro and Scott Chandler, the Dolphins need someone who can be physical yet athletic enough to cover them.

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In this next GIF, notice McCain (strong side) engage the tight end off the line and stay right with his mark downfield. He never turns his body, which would cause him to lose his body control and position to make a play on the ball.

In Week 4 against the St. Louis Rams, McCain drops back into a soft zone from the line of scrimmage with great quickness. His backpedal features good balance, and his head is on a swivel. Once he sees the checkdown pass to the tailback out of the backfield, he breaks toward the ball and makes the open-field tackles.

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The Dolphins might be worried about replacing the pass-rush impact that Wheeler creates, but McCain has the necessary tools to be effective there as well. He’s not as fluid and bendable in his hips as teammate Cameron Wake is, but he’s not stiff at all.

To see his bend, look at the left defensive end at the bottom of the GIF above. He gets off the snap quickly, hits the tackle with his hands to avoid the tackle’s jab attempt and then bends around to pressure the quarterback.

Later in the game we find McCain once again bending around the edge to force an early throw. He didn’t notch a sack on the above plays, but his disruption helps the defense force turnovers and minimize chunk-play potential.

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The Dolphins defense has the potential to be very good, but right now the starting linebackers are holding this unit back. Outside linebackers Ellerbe and Wheeler have been put on notice by the strong play of McCain. If neither veteran shows progress through the first few weeks of the season, the Dolphins should allow McCain to develop on the field.

His ceiling is considerably higher than either of them, and it’s not like Ellerbe and Wheeler don’t make mistakes. It’s easier to live with mistakes if there are positive plays happening between the mistakes.

That’s why Chris McCain is the answer to the Dolphins’ linebacker conundrum.

 

All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required) or Sports-Reference.com. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac.

Ian Wharton is a Miami Dolphins Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, contributor for Optimum Scouting and analyst for FinDepth. You can follow and interact with Ian Wharton on Twitter @NFLFilmStudy.

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