The NFL draft is quickly approaching, and there seems to be a relative consensus among the national media that Notre Dame's Zack Martin will be the player the Miami Dolphins select with the 19th pick in the first round.
Martin has been pegged as the Dolphins' choice in various mock drafts for months now, but while he is certainly a solid player, "solid" isn't exactly the way you want to describe your first-round pick.
"Exceptional" is a word that is much more becoming of a first-round talent, and that's exactly how you would describe the player the Dolphins should select—Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley.
Mosley is the clear-cut best inside linebacker in the draft and is an extremely versatile talent. He anchored the Crimson Tide defense, proving an excellent ability to play in coverage as well as stop the run.
At 6'2" and 234 pounds, Mosley is a very efficient tackler who shows great awareness on the field, displayed by the fact that he's always around the ball.
Now, this isn't to say that Martin would be a bad first-round selection. The reason pundits like ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay (subscription required), Bleacher Report's Matt Miller and Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke, Don Banks and Doug Farrar have Martin as the choice is because he's a natural fit.
Even after signing Branden Albert, Shelley Smith and most recently Jason Fox (via Andrew Abramson of The Palm Beach Post), the Dolphins still have a major need on the offensive line, and Martin can play both guard and tackle very effectively.
However, there are plenty of starting-caliber offensive linemen the team can get later on, which cannot be said about a player with the skill that Mosley has.
It's no secret that the weak link of the 2013 Dolphins defense was the play of its linebackers. Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler—two prized free-agent acquisitions a year ago—had nightmare first seasons in Miami.
Wheeler ranked 35th among 35 outside linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and was graded worse in every category from where he was in 2012. Ellerbe, meanwhile, was top-six in the league in most missed tackles among inside linebackers and graded out 53rd out of 55 overall, according to Pro Football Focus.
More than any other position on the defense, linebackers must be extremely instinctive. In a split second, they have to know if the play is a run or a pass, and they must know where they should be at all times.
The main thing that stands out when breaking down the problems of Ellerbe and Wheeler is their hesitancy when reacting to plays, which caused them to constantly be out of position. Take a look at this play from Miami's Week 16 game against the Buffalo Bills. On 1st-and-goal from the 9-yard line, Fred Jackson takes a read-option handoff up the middle for a touchdown. You can watch the full play here.
At the snap of the ball, you can see that everyone on the defense is doing his job perfectly. Olivier Vernon (50) has the right side sealed off in case the quarterback keeps it, while Koa Misi (55) and Cameron Wake (91) are setting the edge on the left side.
Meanwhile, Randy Starks (94) and Paul Soliai (96) are both eating up two blockers, leaving two gaping holes that Ellerbe (59) and Wheeler (52) need to fill without hesitation.
However, the problem on this play, as was the problem all season, was that they did hesitate. Instead of filling the holes hard, they waited that extra split second and ended up getting stuck behind both Starks and Soliai. Instead of running free at the ball-carrier, they both got caught behind a defensive tackle who was clogging up two offensive lineman.
This meant that the middle was wide open and Jackson could follow his blocker right to the end zone, not getting touched until Chris Clemons eventually hit him at the 2-yard line.
Now, compare this to the play of Mosley, who has consistently shown great instincts when reading and reacting to plays over the course of his college career.
In this play from a game against LSU, Mosley reads that the Tigers have called a run prior to the snap based on the formation. Once the ball is snapped, he uses his quickness to shoot the gap before the left guard even has time to react. Mosley then stops on a dime, avoids the block of the fullback and brings down the running back in the backfield for a loss.
Another example of Mosley's great read-and-react ability can be seen in this play against Tennessee. After initially rushing the passer, he quickly sees the screen play set up, so he immediately adjusts and runs through the running back for another tackle in the backfield.
You can watch and re-watch the entire 2013 season and not see Ellerbe or Wheeler make a single play that compares to what Mosley did against LSU and Tennessee.
Cause and Effect
Drafting Mosley in the first round would set off a chain reaction along the Dolphins depth chart. For starters, it would shift Ellerbe over to the outside, a move that was already being discussed when the team visited with D'Qwell Jackson prior to free agency, according to Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald:
The Dolphins have decided to move Dannell Ellerbe to outside linebacker (weakside) if they sign middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. Philip Wheeler, if he sticks around, would compete with Koa Misi at strongside linebacker.
Sliding Ellerbe over to the weak side would enable him to play in a more natural role in the team's 4-3 defense. It would also allow the Dolphins the option of splitting time with Wheeler and Misi on the strong side to better maximize the ability of both players.
Misi was far and away the best linebacker against the run last season, but he was also very average in coverage and in getting after the quarterback.
Meanwhile, for all the struggles Wheeler had last season, he still excelled when it came to rushing the passer. He ranked behind only Von Miller among 4-3 outside linebackers with 23 hurries while also registering pressure on opposing quarterbacks once every 4.5 pass plays, which was the best on the team, according to Pro Football Focus.
By adding Mosley, the Dolphins will not only be getting a major upgrade at middle linebacker, but they will also be upgrading both outside linebacker positions as well.
Suddenly, with just one addition, Miami could turn what was the major weakness of its defense in 2013 into a strength in 2014 and give itself an elite-level defense.
Of course, there will be a number of different directions that the Dolphins can choose to go in when they are officially on the clock May 8. They could grab an offensive lineman like Zack Martin, bring in their safety of the future in Ha Ha Clinton Dix or even make a big splash on the offensive end with a playmaking tight end like Eric Ebron or a wide receiver like Kelvin Benjamin.
However, if Mosley is still on the board, there really should only be one direction that they ultimately decide to go in, bringing the Alabama linebacker to Miami to anchor the Dolphins defense for the next decade.