Miami Dolphins: Full Position Breakdown and Depth-Chart Analysis at Linebacker

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IJune 25, 2015

Koa Misi (above) is the elder statesman of the Dolphins' linebacker corps.
Koa Misi (above) is the elder statesman of the Dolphins' linebacker corps.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

"These things will change. Can you feel it now? These walls they put up to hold us back will fall down. It's a revolution. The time will come for us to finally win," sang Taylor Swift in "Change.

You may not like the name behind those lyrics, but the words apply to the Miami Dolphins depth chart at linebacker no matter how you break them down.

With the departures of Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler comes an opportunity for former backups to step up into their old roles. As a result, the players who comprised the depth of the roster will need to be replaced as backups by fresh faces on defense.

It was about time for the Dolphins to make those changes too. For the past two seasons, the Dolphins have lacked the appropriate amount of toughness at the second level of their defense. In 2014, they ranked 20th or worse in nearly every rushing category that matters—21st in rushing yards per attempt, 24th in rushing yards per game, 26th in rushing attempts per game.

Will this year's group be good enough to improve on those numbers? Let's have a look at the depth chart.

Jelani Jenkins (53, right) was a big hit at the weakside linebacker spot in 2014.
Jelani Jenkins (53, right) was a big hit at the weakside linebacker spot in 2014.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
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The Starters

With Ellerbe and Wheeler out of the picture, Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins are the only logical choices for starting duties at linebacker. Both men have experience on the Dolphins defense, and both men can play a range of different positions.

Misi was drafted to the Dolphins as a 3-4 outside linebacker but moved to strong-side linebacker in the 4-3 defense when Kevin Coyle took over as defensive coordinator in 2012 and changed the scheme. Misi then moved to the middle in 2014, where he enjoyed one of his more solid seasons in the NFL despite missing much of the first five games of the season with an injury.

Where Misi was penned into a starting role, Jenkins was not; he earned that honor after Ellerbe went down with a season-ending injury. Jenkins' role on the weak side proved to be a great fit, as the 2013 fourth-round selection burst onto the scene with 83 solo tackles, 27 assists and 3.5 sacks. He started 14 games and proved to the Dolphins coaches that they could count on him to take on that role full-time.

The third linebacker spot is a bit more up for grabs than the other two. Dion Jordan might have been the one to earn that role this year, but he is suspended for the season because of another violation of the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, reported by the team on Twitter. Chris McCain has similar versatility to line up either on the end as a pass-rusher or on the second level in a two-point stance to stop the run and cover in the open field.

Jordan Tripp (57, right) spent most of his rookie season on the special teams units.
Jordan Tripp (57, right) spent most of his rookie season on the special teams units.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

The Backups

The Dolphins have fortified their depth chart with plenty of young backups, but as a result, there are also plenty of question marks. 

Second-year linebacker Jordan Tripp spent most of his rookie season on special teams and played only 12 snaps at linebacker, according to Pro Football Focus. However, he could also find his way into a bigger role on defense this year with the departures of the top veterans. 

Veteran Kelvin Sheppard has been exclusively used as a middle linebacker during his career, and if he's going to take snaps away from anyone, it will be Misi. That being said, he played only 121 snaps last year despite Misi missing five games. He's shown very little versatility to do anything else—the closest he came to venturing out of the spot was when he played one of two inside linebacker roles in the Indianapolis Colts' 3-4 defense.

The Dolphins also have Zach Vigil, Spencer Paysinger, Jeff Luc, Mike Hull and Neville Hewitt on the depth chart. While none of them are likely to earn starting roles, any one could play a role in the rotation. Paysinger is a veteran of four years and played multiple roles on the New York Giants defense, even starting 10 games at both middle linebacker and strong-side linebacker in 2013.

Paysinger figures to be the top backup, but Sheppard and Tripp are also possibilities for playing time.

Zach Vigil (49, right) is fighting for a roster spot.
Zach Vigil (49, right) is fighting for a roster spot.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

The Castoffs

In the end, the Dolphins probably won't be able to keep more than six linebackers on their final roster. With Jenkins, Misi and McCain locked into roster spots, there are only three spots to compete over for Tripp, Sheppard, Vigil, Paysinger, Luc, Hull and Hewitt. Four of those seven will probably have to find work elsewhere for the 2015 season.

Vigil, who is a capable backup at strong-side linebacker and could find a niche on special teams, should have a leg-up on some of the more undersized prospects. Hull and Hewitt are two hustle players, and although neither has the size of an ideal linebacker (Hull is 6'0" and 232 pounds, Hewitt is 6'2" and 219 pounds), both are tough, competitive players who will at least push for the practice squad. 

Everyone but Paysinger and Sheppard is eligible for the practice squad, so those two are more likely to land on the final roster unless they are very underwhelming in practice. 

That leaves just one spot for five young linebackers to fight over. The competition will be fierce.

Unless otherwise noted, all advanced stats obtained via Pro Football Focus

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