Rolling the Dice: What Will Kiko Alonso Be for the Miami Dolphins?

Once again, the Miami Dolphins have been the team to make the first major move of free agency. This year, it did not come in the form of a signing, but manifested itself as a trade. 

The Miami Dolphins have sent an undisclosed draft pick to the Philadelphia Eagles in return for linebacker Kiko Alonso and cornerback Byron Maxwell.

For Maxwell, the move makes sense. He is a zone cornerback who the Eagles attempted to use in man coverage. Vance Joseph favors zone, and Byron Maxwell will make himself right at home in the team’s system. Barring an amazing turn of events, they are still overpaying for a player of Maxwell’s ability. However, the move will allow the team to move on from Brent Grimes, a transaction that is reportedly set to occur in the next few days.

However, while Byron Maxwell might have been the central element of this trade, he is not the most interesting player dealt.

Background:

The more intriguing part of this trade is the team’s acquisition of Kiko Alonso. As a 2nd round pick out of Oregon, Alonso was a force for the Buffalo Bills as a rookie in 2013. Following his rookie season, he tore his ACL during an offseason workout. This injury cost him the entirety of 2014.

This is where the true intrigue begins for the career of Kiko Alonso. Before the 2015 season, the Philadelphia Eagles acquired the recovering linebacker from the Bills in return for running back LeSean McCoy. The Eagles’ defense, under coordinator Bill Davis, was considered one of the league’s most inept units in 2015. The team was utilizing players in curious manners and employed a rotation that put linebackers across different positions throughout each game. This is clearly not conducive to long-term success. Alonso did struggle in his own right, which will be touched upon later. However, the Eagles’ system makes it very difficult to evaluate him as a player.

The Miami Dolphins are acquiring Alonso to remedy one of the worst linebacker corps in the NFL, and they are doing so in a price conscious manner. Alonso will cost under $1 million in 2016, but is on the final year of his rookie deal. With that being said, will he be a one and done, or can he revive his career in South Florida?

The Good:

With the Buffalo Bills, Kiko Alonso was everything that a team would want in an inside linebacker. As a rookie, he demonstrated a high football IQ and tenacity when attacking the ball. In Philadelphia, the tape looked vastly different. However, the upside is there if Alonso can become confident in his knee once again as a member of the Miami Dolphins.

One key element of Alonso’s playing style when he was with the Bills was his speed. He has the ability to accelerate and hit a second gear, allowing himself to make plays all over the field. Here is an example from the Bills’ 2013 game against the Ravens:

FullSpeedShotOutofCannon.gif

Alonso watches the play develop and sees Joe Flacco move outside of the pocket. Once he recognizes this, he begins his pursuit of the Ravens’ quarterback. Flacco does not evade Alonso, but when a passer is outside of the pocket and waiting for his receivers to improvise, every second matters. Alonso’s speed allows him to reach Flacco in an exceptionally short time, forcing the incompletion.

For many linebackers who possess speed, the issue remains a lack of decisiveness or play recognition. Being fast doesn’t do you any good if you don’t know where the play is progressing. For Alonso, this is not an issue.

Even in Philly, Alonso’s ability to read plays was on display. However, when he paired it with his speed and implementation in Buffalo, it was a lethal combination for opposing offenses.

MakesPlay.gif

Here, the Carolina Panthers are attempting to execute a simple screen. On defense, if you can recognize the screen quickly enough, the play can usually be neutralized. Within two seconds of the ball being snapped, Alonso sees the running back and knows the offense’s plan. While the vigor of his pursuit is risky (in case of a fake), his confidence in the progression of the play leads to a stop for no gain by Alonso.

Good.gif

The play above tells a similar tale, but shows how well Alonso was able to read blocking with the Bills. When he gets caught in traffic, he struggles. So, when he played in Buffalo, his understanding of the offense’s game plan allowed him to avoid those situations. Alonso avoids getting hung up on blockers and follows the play from the snap until the whistle is blown.

For the Buffalo Bills, Alonso did everything you would ask of a star linebacker in the NFL. Clearly comfortable with the scheme, he made plays from day one with the Bills. One can clearly see the impact that a linebacker with speed and decisiveness can have on the game when implemented correctly.

The Bad:

Kiko Alonso in Buffalo: Game-changing linebacker.

Kiko Alonso in Philadelphia: Pretty much average.

Unfortunately, everything that went right for Alonso during his rookie season in Buffalo seemed to be undone by the time he arrived in Philadelphia. His speed appeared to be lessened following the torn ACL, and he was certainly less comfortable in the Eagles’ scheme.

In Buffalo, Alonso played inside for many of his snaps. For the Eagles, not only did Alonso become a rotational player, but he also played several positions. In theory, flexibility at linebacker is good for a defense. However in practice for the 2015 Eagles, it led to Alonso struggling in the scheme.

The main issue is that the Eagles did not allow Alonso to play as an attacking linebacker. He became a sitting duck in the middle of the defense, and without much confidence in his physical condition at that time (players normally take a year to return to form after an ACL tear), it was a recipe for disaster. Bill Davis’ utilization of Kiko Alonso was as poorly thought out as I have ever seen in the NFL.

Alonso’s health was also clearly an issue for him with the Eagles. He missed several games with a strained knee, and when he was playing appeared to lack confidence on cuts. This is common with players coming off of ACL injuries, but was especially pronounced in the physical changes that occurred in Alonso’s game.

Here is one example from a play against the Patriots that distinctly shows the change in his athleticism:

DiagnosesButCantStick

Kiko Alonso is moving towards the quarterback, but sees James White slipping out of the backfield. Alonso uses his aforementioned recognition to adjust and make a move to cover White. However, his physical ability and speed are clearly not the same as they were in Buffalo. Alonso is beat on the route by White, whose speed and quickness are too much for the clearly struggling linebacker.

In the Eagles’ system, Alonso was forced to spend much more time floating in the middle of the defense and was not playing attacking-style linebacker as much as he was with the Bills. This exposed a lack of brute strength, which was not an issue prior to the injury:

Dragged

On this play, Kiko Alonso sees the play develop while is sitting in the middle of the defense. He is not able to get a running start on the tackle, which allows the running back to drag him for several more yards. In Buffalo, Alonso played fairly well against the run. With the Eagles, he was thrown around frequently by more powerful ball carriers. This would not have been an issue if he were playing his normal attacking style for the Eagles’ defense, but his assignments prevented him from doing so.

Going back to Alonso’s Buffalo Bills days, there was only one clear area in which he frequently had trouble. This came in occasional lapses in tackling technique.

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The play above is an example of Alonso’s tendency to use arm tackles. He doesn’t do this too much, but when he does the consequences are obvious. He never seemed to shy away from contact in Buffalo, but did seem less willing to throw his body around when playing in Philadelphia. This was partially due to the system, which had him sitting in coverage more and attacking the ball carrier less. Hopefully Alonso’s injury does not cause him the permanently seek to avoid contact.

There are very few carryovers from Alonso’s time in Buffalo to his time in Philadelphia. The only similarity is his ability to recognize and track the play. For the Bills, he was an explosive linebacker with explosive ability. For the Eagles, he appeared to be much slower and did not play coverage decisively.

Alonso’s hesitation when cutting indicates that his struggles in Philadelphian can be partially attributed to his efforts in rehabbing his knee injury. While he was technically healthy, there is a mental barrier that must be broken when returning from an ACL injury. Between the failure to break down that barrier and the Eagles’ subpar defensive schemes, it is no surprise that Kiko Alonso was a shell of his former self in Philadelphia.

Scheme Fit:

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(Brett Davis- USA Today Sports)

This is the interesting element to the trade. In Buffalo, Alonso played primarily on the inside. While the Eagles moved him around frequently, he appeared to be settled in often as a weak side linebacker. So, where does he fit in with the Dolphins?

In Miami’s 4-3 defense, as Alonso appears now regarding his health, he is a weak side linebacker. He does not fit the description of a strong side pass rusher, and he does not appear to have the ability to play with strength against runners in the middle. However, this could very well change if Alonso is able to make strides in his recovery from injury. If the Dolphins’ defense allows him to play attacking-style linebacker, he could very well become a force in the middle of the defense.

While this is true, he will in all likelihood be playing the weak side linebacker position in Miami. However, if the team resigns Alonso and eventually moves to a 3-4 (something Vance Joseph seems likely to do in 2017), then Alonso would fit very well as an inside linebacker.

His struggles in playing through traffic and getting off of blocks will be alleviated somewhat by Ndamukong Suh’s presence upfront. Suh’s occupation of blockers, and the presence of larger players like Jordan Phillips, will leave more space for Alonso to operate. This is an optimal situation given his skill set.

In 2016, I expect the Dolphins to use a more versatile defensive scheme than they have in years past. The team will play in some Wide-9 sets, which would value Alonso’s ability to cover ground and track down runners. He also will be useful in the red zone due to his coverage ability.

For the Dolphins, a team with one of the worst linebacker groups in the NFL, Alonso will be an upgrade. Really there are very few ways to downgrade from what Miami had at the position last year. However, it remains to be seen if Alonso will be able to regain his explosiveness and really wreak havoc on opposing offenses with the Dolphins.

The Skinny:

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(Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports)

The Miami Dolphins’ decision to trade an undisclosed draft pick for Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell is a curious one for some, but really represents a willingness to take chances in order to rebuild the defense. The team is clearly looking to shake up their personnel to give Vance Joseph a full set of tools, but questions still remain about both players.

For Kiko Alonso, there is one resounding question that he will continue to be asked until the start of the 2016 season:

How is the knee?

If Kiko Alonso is fully healed and has regained confidence in the surgically repaired knee, then he will be a stellar addition for the Dolphins. He would provide the linebacker corps with the dynamic presence it has needed since Karlos Dansby’s departure.

If he is not healthy, he will just be an average piece in the Dolphins’ defense.

However, this trade was clearly made for the upside. Alonoso will be a free agent after the 2016 season. He also is going to cost the team less than $1 million against the salary cap.

Once terms for this trade are announced, we will be able to analyze the true implications of Miami’s decision to acquire these players. However, Kiko Alonso could be an asset that proves far more valuable than whatever Miami sent to Philadelphia. If Kiko Alonso can regain confidence in his knee, and if he can stay healthy (the holy “if” in the NFL), then he can be a force for the Miami Dolphins.

For a team desperately seeking a strong presence in the linebacker corps, it is worth a shot to gamble on a player who might have some draw backs, but could become a true difference maker. Kiko Alonso stands a good chance at becoming that difference maker for the Miami Dolphins.

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