Perhaps at no position was the Miami Dolphins' youth movement more prevalent than at linebacker, where the team ditched veterans Akin Ayodele and Reggie Torbor and let free agents Joey Porter and Jason Taylor walk in the 2010 offseason.
Stepping into significant roles at outside linebacker were second-year CFL import Cameron Wake and second-round rookie Koa Misi. The team also drafted two linebackers—Chris McCoy and Austin Spitler—in the seventh round of the draft.
In free agency, former Arizona Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby was the Dolphins' most prized acquisition, signed to a five-year, $43 million contract with $22 million guaranteed.
Despite the dip in starting experience among the Dolphins' top four linebackers, the team's defense shot to the top 10 of the league, thanks to the arrival of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, continued dominance by the defensive line, and the emergence of Wake as one of the NFL's best pass rushers.
So how did the Dolphins' linebackers grade out individually? Continue on to find out...
Chris J. Nelson majored in journalism at Georgia State University and currently works for Turner Sports in Atlanta. He operates his own Miami Dolphins website, The Miami Dolphins Spotlight, and he can be followed on Twitter here.
Dolphins fans had high hopes for Wake when he was signed as the CFL's reigning sack king back in 2009, and he showed flashes of ability with 5.5 sacks in limited duty as a rookie.
Taking over for Jason Taylor and Joey Porter as the team's No. 1 pass rusher, Wake didn't disappoint with a monstrous sophomore campaign that saw him rack up 57 tackles, 14 sacks, and three forced fumbles.
Wake's sack total ranked third in the NFL behind only DeMarcus Ware and Tamba Hali, and he was deservedly selected as a starter for the AFC in the 2011 Pro Bowl.
Not only was Wake a superb pass rusher in 2010, but he was also increasingly reliable in less comfortable areas like run defense and pass coverage.
For most of the season, there were simply no holes in Wake's game, and he single-handedly helped the team win. Even at times when the defense was struggling, it seems like Wake was the one guy out there still making plays.
Wake has two years remaining on his four-year, $4.9 million contract from 2009, but he should be first in line for a contract extension this offseason or next if he keeps up his level of play.
The Dolphins' inside linebackers struggled mightily in 2009, and Dansby was just what the doctor ordered to help remedy the situation.
An experienced veteran in the 3-4 scheme from his later years in Arizona, Dansby stepped in immediately as the Dolphins' three-down "MIKE" inside linebacker. The signing also moved a very average Channing Crowder into Akin Ayodele's old two-down "MOE" spot.
Dansby didn't disappoint in 2010, totaling 95 tackles, three sacks, and two forced fumbles in 14 games. He missed the team's final two games with a minor toe injury.
Quite simply, Dansby was effective in all areas in 2010, be it stopping the run or playing back in coverage.
He was the reliable, play-making inside linebacker the team desperately need before the season, and he's not going anywhere any time soon.
A solid yet unspectacular linebacker, Crowder's role in the defense was decreased a bit with the arrival of Karlos Dansby. Rather than being the Dolphins' three-down "MIKE" linebacker, Crowder took Akin Ayodele's spot as the two-down linebacker instead.
After a groin injury kept him out of the team's first five games, Crowder returned to the starting lineup and opened the final 11 contests. He was credited with 39 tackles and two pass deflections on the season.
The defense got better once Crowder replaced Tim Dobbins and Bobby Carpenter in the starting lineup, but that says more about how bad the backups were than how good Crowder is.
In short, Crowder didn't contribute much other than as an extremely average linebacker. On the other hand, he continued to be on the of the most vocal and well-respected leaders on the unit, which has a value that cannot easily be measured.
However, Crowder will make $2.5 million in the final year of his contract in 2011, and there is no guarantee he'll be back as a starter beyond next season if he can't pick up his play and stay on the field.
The Dolphins' second round pick in 2010, Misi was asked to take on a large role as a rookie with the team not really acquiring any other starting-caliber outside linebackers via trade or free agency.
Misi appeared in all 16 games for the Dolphins in 2010, officially opening 11 contests while serving as the team's primary strong-side linebacker all season. He finished his first pro season with 41 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and two pass deflections.
While he was pretty solid at times, Misi was certainly never spectacular in any facets. He struggled at times against the run and in coverage, and his pass-rushing production took a nose dive as well with just one sack in the final 10 weeks of the season.
Misi isn't flashy and may not have the ability to be a dominant pass rusher, which will make it hard for him to maintain a grasp on a starting job long-term rather than become part of a committee.
Acquired from the Chargers in the draft-day trade that landed Ryan Mathews in San Diego and Jared Odrick in Miami, Dobbins spent his first season with the Dolphins as a top backup linebacker and special teams player.
While his tackle total (47) exceeds that of Crowder (39) and he started five few games, Dobbins' play was pretty sub-par for much of the season.
Asked to know both inside linebacker spots as the top backup to both Karlos Dansby and Channing Crowder, Dobbins was not effective as a run stopper and was exposed in coverage when he saw extended playing time.
Dobbins also failed to stand out on special teams, and his role should not increase over what it was in 2010.
I've long wondered if Quentin Moses has scandalous photographs of some Bill Parcells-Jeff-Ireland-Tony Sparano threesome, because that's the only way I can explain his continued presence on the Dolphins after four seasons of showing no signs of growth.
A former third-round pick by the Raiders who got cut before the regular season, Moses has spent the past four seasons with the Dolphins as a mildly productive situational backup at outside linebacker.
Even with the departures of Joey Porter and Jason Taylor, the lack of production by rookie Koa Misi, and the illness to Ikaika Alama-Francis early in the season, Moses still only managed to record 18 tackles and a sack (his third in 44 career games).
Moses has shown nothing more than backup ability since he entered the NFL and has never even been a strong contributor on special teams.
One has to wonder how long he'll stick around in Miami before the team brings in someone younger who at least has a chance of progressing.
A former second-round pick and defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions, Alama-Francis was originally signed during the 2009 season and worked at defensive end in the team's 3-4 scheme at 290 pounds.
In the 2010 offseason, however, Alama-Francis showed the kind of agility that made linebackers coach Bill Sheridan think he actually had a place as a stand-up linebacker in the mold of a Matt Roth.
Alama-Francis seemed poised for a platoon role with Koa Misi on the strong side in 2010, but an illness limited him to just 11 games and a fairly insignificant role as he totaled just 11 tackles.
While he hasn't shown much at linebacker to date, his intriguing skill set and inexpensive contract makes it quite possible he'll be able to compete for a bigger role again in 2011.
The yearly seventh-round special-teams linebacker, Spitler arrived in Miami as one of the team's picks in the last round out this past April out of Ohio State.
Relegated to the practice squad for the first three weeks of the season, Spitler was promoted to the active roster on Oct. 4 and proceeded to play in 12 games, registering four tackles.
Spitler failed to stand out on special teams, which is really where he needs to shine to stick around in Miami for a long time.
While he's a better schematic fit than the man he replaced in 2009 seventh-rounder J.D. Folsom, Spitler's upside appears limited and he'll have an extremely tough battle to make the team out of training camp in 2011.
A three-time honorable mention linebacker at Kansas, Rivera signed with the Chicago Bears as an undrafted free agent in 2009. He spent the regular season on the Tennessee Titans' practice squad, and was released by the team before the 2010 season.
This past season, Rivera joined the Green Bay Packers' practice squad in October, and remained there until being added to the Dolphins' active roster on Dec. 28. He was inactive for the regular season finale.
Rivera has 3-4 experience and is every bit as good as Austin Spitler, but he'll have his hands full making the roster buried on the depth chart and would have to really shine on special teams to do so. The return of 2010 fourth-rounder A.J. Edds (torn ACL) isn't going to help, either.
While Channing Crowder could definitely be upgraded, the Dolphins probably aren't in a rush to replace him in the final year of his contract now that Karlos Dansby is the team's primary inside linebacker anyway.
I don't really see the Dolphins adding much at inside linebacker at all outside of training camp depth and some special-teams guys, as Dobbins is returning as a backup and A.J. Edds should be back from his torn ACL.
Outside linebacker, however, is still a place where the Dolphins could use some more talent. Despite Cameron Wake's breakout season, the Dolphins could still use another pass rusher and will be looking wherever they can to find one.
In free agency, the top names will likely not be on the radar, as Cameron Wake is in need of a contract extension before the team adds a marquee name at a high price.
Players like Tamba Hali (Chiefs) and LaMarr Woodley (Steelers) are on everyone's wish list, but they'll likely command top dollar and will probably be franchised by their current teams.
The Dolphins could look to some second-tier, developmental free agents, such as Manny Lawson (49ers) or Jarvis Moss (Raiders), but the options are pretty limited.
More likely, the Dolphins will turn toward the draft for help at outside linebacker, and could do it earlier than people expect.
The Dolphins will probably trade out of the No. 15 spot, but they have long been proponents of taking the best available player and would not hesitate to grab an outside linebacker in the first round if he was the top guy on their board.
In that event, players like Justin Houston (Georgia), Ryan Kerrigan (Purdue), Robert Quinn (UNC) and Aldon Smith (Missouri) could appeal to the Dolphins in the middle (or late, if they trade down) first round.
In the second (if Miami trades into it) and third rounds, the Dolphins could look to guys like Sam Acho (Texas), Jeremy Beal (Oklahoma), Brooks Reed (Arizona) and Jabaal Sheard (Pittsburgh).