The time has come to begin previewing the Miami Dolphins, position by position, entering the offseason (which we all hope officially begins next month with a new CBA).
This article focuses on the linebacker position.
The Dolphins ditched veteran outside linebackers Joey Porter and Jason Taylor before the season, opting instead for former CFL superstar Cameron Wake and rookie second-round draft pick Koa Misi as the team's primary pass rushers.
Miami also added a huge defensive fixture in Karlos Dansby, as well as a top backup through a draft-day trade in Tim Dobbins and linebackers from the draft itself in A. J. Edds and Austin Spitler.
In this article, I'll look at the team's strengths and areas of need; who is under contract; who are the free agents and their prospects for being re-signed; and who the Dolphins might look at via trade, free agency and the draft.
OLB Ikaika Alama-Francis — A defensive tackle in Detroit, Alama-Francis was converted from 3-4 end to outside linebacker prior to last season, but an illness hampered what could have been a significant role on the strong side. He finished the year with 11 tackles in as many games.
ILB Channing Crowder — Relegated to the Dolphins' two-down inside linebacker spot with the arrival of Karlos Dansby, Crowder opened 11 games for the Dolphins while battling injuries and recorded 29 tackles.
ILB Karlos Dansby — Signed to a five-year, $43 million contract in the 2010 offseason with $22 million guaranteed, Dansby became the leader of the Dolphins' defense and led all linebackers with 95 tackles while adding three sacks and two forced fumbles in 14 games.
ILB Tim Dobbins — Acquired in a draft-day traded that landed Miami the pick they used to select Jared Odrick in the first round, Dobbins served as the Dolphins' top backup inside linebacker. He started six of 16 games and recorded 47 tackles and one sack.
ILB A. J. Edds — A fourth-round pick out of Iowa in 2010, Edds was slated for a backup role as a rookie before a torn ACL in training camp forced him to miss the entire season.
OLB Koa Misi — The Dolphins' second-rounder out of Utah, Misi started 11 of 16 contests, totaling 45 tackles and ranking second on the team with 4.5 sacks. He recovered a Brett Favre fumble in the end zone for a touchdown in his second pro game.
ILB Mark Restelli — Signed by the Dolphins in the 2011 offseason, the former Edmonton Eskimos (CFL) linebacker doesn't have the size for the 3-4 at just 6'2" and 215 pounds. He'll play special teams in 2011.
ILB Mike Rivera — A second-year player out of Kansas, Rivera was signed to the Dolphins' active roster from the Packers' practice squad with one game left to play in the regular season, although he did not see game action. He'll compete for a reserve spot in 2011.
ILB Austin Spitler — One of the Dolphins' seventh-round picks in 2010, Spitler split his rookie season between the practice squad and active roster. He appeared in 12 games on special teams and totaled four tackles.
OLB Cameron Wake — A former defensive MVP in the CFL, Wake followed up his rookie season with the Dolphins with an incredible 14 sacks and three forced fumbles to go along with 57 tackles. He was selected to his first Pro Bowl in 2011.
OLB Quentin Moses (unrestricted) — Originally a third-round pick by the Oakland Raiders in 2007, Moses recorded 18 tackles and a sack in 15 games (no starts) in 2010. He has 35 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 44 career games.
The Dolphins are halfway set at linebacker, as Karlos Dansby is an elite and complete inside linebacker who should return just as productive, if not more so, in 2010, and Cameron Wake clearly established himself as one of the premier pass rushers in all of football this past season.
The team also has a solid mix and experience behind Dansby at inside linebacker, as both Crowder and Dobbins have extensive game action on their resumes and Edds should return to the field from a torn ACL in 2011.
Areas of Need
While Crowder is serviceable, especially in the reduced role he had in 2010, he is not a playmaker and lacks the ability to play in coverage or chase down some of the league's better offensive talent. Dobbins is also more suited for a backup role, so the Dolphins could use a more long-term solution to play alongside Dansby at insider linebacker.
The Dolphins are also pretty thin in the pass rush beyond Cameron Wake, as Koa Misi totaled just 4.5 sacks in his rookie season despite playing opposite a guy drawing so much attention. Misi, who totaled just one sack after Week 7, heads up a pretty unproductive outside linebacker position for the Dolphins in 2010.
Free Agency Outlook
With Wake putting up excellent numbers in 2010 and angling for a much-deserved contract extension of his own, you can be sure the Dolphins won't be shelling out big money and/or draft picks for anyone in free agency, like franchise-tagged players Tamba Hali (Kansas City) or LaMarr Woodley (Pittsburgh).
The same can be said for inside linebacker, where we aren't going to see the team surrender multiple first-round picks to add a high-priced franchise-tagged player like the Jets' David Harris, given how much money the Dolphins spent on Dansby in 2010.
The Dolphins have too many bodies at inside linebacker to really make any significant additions in free agency, but a young, developmental outside linebacker could still be an option.
Someone like Manny Lawson, who was drafted in the first round during defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's time in San Francisco and has underachieved to date, is a possibility.
There are plenty of linebackers who could interest the Dolphins with the 15th overall pick, including Dansby clone Akeem Ayers (UCLA) and inside and outsider rushers like Von Miller (Texas A&M), Ryan Kerrigan (Purdue), Aldon Smith (Missouri) and Justin Houston (Georgia).
That being said, the Dolphins are likely to trade down in the first round in order to get back the second-rounder they lost in the Brandon Marshall deal, so they eventually may not be in a position to select all or any of the above players.
If that is the case, they could turn their attention to Martez Wilson (Illinois) or Mark Herzlich (Boston College) in the late first or second round as a potential starting inside linebacker. More developmental options inside include Kelvin Sheppard (LSU), Mike Mohamed (California) and Chris White (Mississippi State).
Should the Dolphins not address outside linebacker in the first round and be looking for a rusher to compete with Misi and develop opposite Wake, guys like Brooks Reed (Arizona), Sam Acho (Texas) and Jeremy Beal (Oklahoma) will draw interest in the draft's second day.
Later, long-term developmental options include Cliff Matthews (South Carolina), Markus White (Florida State), Ricky Elmore (Arizona) and Ugo Chinasa (Oklahoma).
With the strong-side spot still unsettled and very little depth to speak of outside, you can be sure the Dolphins will at least address the position one or twice over those three days in April.
The Dolphins' defense was fantastic in 2010, and assuming Dansby and Wake stay healthy and continue to produce like they can, the team can absolutely get by with Crowder as the other inside starter and Misi or someone else starting on the strong side.
Of course, upgrades over those latter two spots would be nice, and the Dolphins might need to invest a little more effort into the positions than seventh-round picks that struggle just to excel on special teams, let alone develop into quality NFL starters.
The Dolphins also need to keep Wake happy by giving him elite pass rusher money, as he has never publicly complained about his contract even after his stellar performance in 2010. Entering year three of the four-year, $4.9 million contract he signed in 2009, Wake is due for a significant pay raise and should receive it sooner rather than later.
Discuss this article on the forum here!
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.