The Miami Dolphins spent little resources on strengthening the linebacker position during the 2015 offseason.
No draft picks were used at the position, as the Dolphins traded down in the second round when former Hurricanes middle linebacker Denzel Perryman was available for the taking (they would wind up selecting defensive tackle Jordan Phillips). Aside from former New York Giant Spencer Paysinger, they didn't go after a linebacker during free agency either, only addressing the position through the signing of undrafted free agents.
Due to this strategy at the position, along with releasing Philip Wheeler and trading Dannell Ellerbe, it looked as if Miami would go into the 2015 season with Jelani Jenkins at weak-side linebacker, Koa Misi up the middle, and Chris McCain as the strong-side linebacker.
Through training camp, that looks to have changed as the Dolphins have had veteran Kelvin Sheppard practicing with the first team at middle linebacker, per Andrew Abramson of the Sun Sentinel. This is the path they must remain on.
|Kelvin Sheppard Stats|
Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle has had this arrangement since the start of training camp, and on Wednesday discussed the fact that Sheppard and Misi are competing for the starting middle linebacker job (per Andrew Abramson of the Palm Beach Post). Coyle has optimism and trust in both players, saying:
It’s still up in the air and I don’t see that as a problem — I see that as a good situation. I feel confident if we played today and we put Koa in the middle, he’d be much improved over last year. And yet last year he was progressing at a pretty quick pace.
Kelvin Sheppard has been one of the most impressive guys in training camp as far as I’m concerned in his ability to communicate, to take charge. I think the group looks at Kelvin as a leader, as a veteran. He is as hungry as any player out their on the field, wanting to play, wanting to perform.
Coyle is correct in that Misi would be much-improved. Last season was Misi's first season at any level of football at middle linebacker, and he recorded 64 tackles and a sack. Pro Football Focus graded him out at 8.9 overall.
Despite Misi's overall good play, he'd be better off as the strong-side linebacker, the position he played in 2013, when he had 54 tackles and two sacks while grading out at 5.6.
Yes, Misi's 2014 numbers were better as a middle linebacker than 2013's numbers as the strong-side linebacke, but strong-side linebacker is his natural position, and Miami's defensive line and linebackers will be better in 2015 than they were in 2013 as a whole having him play that position.
Sheppard has more experience as an NFL middle linebacker than any of Miami's other LBs. In his first two seasons with the Buffalo Bills, he started at middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense and recorded 150 tackles and two sacks, with Pro Football Focus grading him out at 3.1 his rookie season and minus-4.2 his second season.
The Bills traded Sheppard to Indianapolis in exchange for Jerry Hughes in 2013 in order to make room for then-rookie Kiko Alonso. In Indianapolis, Sheppard was put into a 3-4 defense where he never quite fit and was subsequently released prior to the start of the 2014 season.
He signed with Miami last season following Dannell Ellerbe's injury. With the Dolphins, Sheppard recorded 24 tackles and a forced fumble while starting once in Week 15 against New England. In that game he recorded 10 tackles and the aforementioned forced fumble while grading out at minus-0.4, per Pro Football Focus.
|Kelvin Sheppard's PFF Numbers 2011-14|
|Year||Team||Run Defense Grade||Pass Defense Grade||Pass Rush Grade||Overall|
|Pro Football Focus|
Sheppard's experience would give him the edge over Misi at middle linebacker, but more importantly it's the experience and communication skills that he adds to the unit. Sheppard is also slightly better in pass coverage, an area where the Dolphins have struggled in the last few years.
If Sheppard were to win the starting job at middle linebacker, Misi would move over to the strong-side spot. This would allow Chris McCain, a second-year player, to come off the bench. Overall, that leads to a more experienced linebacker crew while also strengthening the depth on the unit, as McCain would then be able to come in at strong-side or weak-side linebacker when necessary.
Sheppard starting means a stronger defense as a whole, even if the individual numbers do not convey that. It's a much better option than thrusting McCain, a talented player who should make a big impact either way, into the starting job despite having no starts in 2014 and only appearing in seven games.
After one week, Sheppard should be the leader in the club house for starting middle linebacker.