Draft Journal: Which LBs Could the Dolphins Potentially Turn to for Help in April?
Miami’s linebacker corps is widely considered their biggest weakness. Kiko Alonso has undoubtedly had several game-altering plays in his first season in Miami, yet he is by no means the same player he was as a rookie in Buffalo. Beyond him, there isn’t a single player capable of being consistently relied on. Jelani Jenkins, for example, seems to always be injured and has been an absolute disaster when he has made it onto the field. Earlier in the season, we identified Reuben Foster as a potential savior of Miami’s defense. However, the Dolphins have firmly played themselves out of Foster’s draft range. Thus, let’s take a look at the top three linebackers that Miami could still have the opportunity to select in the first round come April.
Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
Miami needs a linebacker with range more than they need anything else. Arguably their two biggest defensive weaknesses are against the run and against tight ends, and Cunningham’s speed, athleticism and range would immediately improve the Dolphins in both regards.
Miami puts so much emphasis on their pass rush that opposing offenses can often take advantage of them on the ground. Vance Joseph spreads out the defensive line to create better pass rushing angles, but that leaves significant holes between each defensive lineman. Thus, it is up to the linebackers to fill those holes without having to sell out. Unfortunately, the Dolphins linebackers have failed both physically and mentally in this regard. Cunningham’s impressive range involves not only his acceleration and change of direction skills, but also his awareness and ability to diagnose plays. This combination of physical and mental abilities is what allows Cunningham to make plays from sideline to sideline and is a skillset that Miami sorely lacks in their linebacker corps.
Cunningham’s range also relates to his pass coverage potential. He has the talent to both cover running backs coming out of the backfield and shadow tight ends up the seam. With Reshad Jones injured, Miami has struggled mightily in covering both positions. While his coverage ability might not be his calling card, Cunningham’s range certainly would allow him to at least improve one of the Dolphins’ biggest weaknesses.
At times, Cunningham can be so aggressive in his pursuit of the ball that he is inconsistent in his tackling technique. He often seems off-balance at the point of attack, or relies too heavily on his upper body strength as opposed to wrapping the opponent up or driving him backwards with his hips. For someone with such amazing athleticism for his size, he can’t allow his aggressiveness to be his downfall.
For Miami, this could ultimately dissuade them from selecting him in the first round. They have already had their fair share of missed tackles by the linebackers currently on the roster, and adding Cunningham to the mix without full confidence that he can sure up his tackling technique would be a risky proposition.
Fortunately, I have confidence in his ability to improve this aspect of his game. Cunningham is asked to shoulder a ton of responsibility in the Commodores’ defense and it often forces him to play more aggressively than he should. He leads his team in tackles, has forced two fumbles and tallied three passes defended, evidence of his ability to impact the game in countless ways. However, he wouldn’t be asked to do as much for his defense early on in his NFL career. I believe this would allow him to focus on improving his tackling under Joseph, and if he succeeds in doing so, he would have very few holes in his game.
Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State
In contrast, Ohio State stud Raekwon McMillan’s best attribute is his tackling ability. He too leads his team in tackles, in addition to calling plays for one of the nation’s best teams. He displays a high football IQ, rarely makes mistakes and takes great angles to the ball. At the point of attack, he is strong, consistent and nearly always makes the sure tackle. Thus, he is one of the safer defensive prospects available.
Miami’s tackling as a whole has been subpar at best over the past few seasons, and the problem has intensified due to the absence of Reshad Jones on the backend. The linebackers have simply missed opportunities whenever they try to fill gaps in the defensive line. They seem hesitant and, at times, rely on arm tackles that any NFL running back can easily run through. McMillan would have no such problems. Take this next play for example:
Outside of Foster, McMillan is the most consistent tackler at the linebacker position. McMillan had 16 tackles in Ohio State’s huge win over Michigan, including the vital run stuff on second down shown above. Considering the issues the Dolphins have had in tackling this season, they have no choice but to address the problem in some way over the offseason. Joseph’s defensive scheme puts a ton of pressure on the linebackers to reliably tackle, and the players currently on the roster simply don’t seem up to the task.
Concern: Pass Coverage
While McMillan would be a huge help in the tackling department, he likely wouldn’t help in pass coverage – at least initially. He isn’t an every down player for Ohio State, as Urban Meyer takes him off the field in obvious passing down situations. His standing as a prospect is much like that of Reggie Ragland last year: he is fantastic in the box but his limitations in coverage could ultimately cause him to fall into round two.
He struggles against quicker running backs and tight ends and his hips get tight when he is asked to shadow. He has enough speed to break on plays in zone coverage, but his route recognition is currently behind that of the other top linebackers. Considering these aspects, it is unclear if Miami would be willing to pull the trigger on McMillan in the first round.
Luckily, McMillan is a hard worker and has at least shown the potential to improve in pass coverage with the help of NFL coaching. In the next play, McMillan recovers to break up a pass in the corner of the end zone.
While McMillan could eventually evolve into an every down linebacker, his limitations on 3rd down and in obvious passing situations could potentially cause him to fall to Day Two. Considering the Dolphins’ inability to cover tight ends, McMillan seems like the least likely of the top inside linebackers to go to South Beach.
Jarrad Davis, Florida
Florida Gator Jarrad Davis is actually listed as an outside linebacker, but he has the versatility and range of an inside linebacker. He can rush the passer, is an absolute menace in the backfield and is more than capable in pass coverage as well. If he fell into Miami’s range, it would be hard for them to pass Davis up. His versatility would directly improve so many of the Dolphins’ weaknesses.
He is undoubtedly the heart and soul of one of the SEC’s stingiest defenses. Intangibles are often overlooked come draft season, but they shouldn’t be in Davis’ case. He is versatile both on the field and in his ability to be a positive impact in the locker room and lead the defense. Plays like the one below display both his physical talent and how great of a competitor he is:
Much like Cunningham, Davis is capable of making plays from sideline to sideline. He flies to the ball and has the ability to make the sure tackle and even lay down the hammer at times. However, while range is Cunningham’s calling card, Davis prides himself on impacting the game in several different ways. He can matchup against opposing tight ends and running backs without sacrificing any ability to get into the backfield or clog running lanes. For a team with as many defensive weaknesses as the Dolphins, there may be no better prospect for them than Davis.
With that being said, Davis isn’t without his own concerns. Chief among them: the Florida standout suffered several injury plagued stints throughout his college career. Davis suffered injuries to both of his ankles at different points this year, keeping him out of multiple games in his senior season.
While injuries are always going to be considered by teams and scouts, they are particularly worrisome for Davis. First of all, multiple lower leg injuries could sap him of the explosiveness that he relies so heavily on to make plays all over the field. Second of all, he is already a bit undersized at 6’2” and 238 pounds.
I don’t believe Davis’ injury history should prevent Miami from selecting him in the first round, as he would plausibly be a steal in the Dolphins’ draft range. However, it still must be considered, and he will undeniably be evaluated closely throughout the entire pre-draft process. With the injuries that Miami’s roster has been forced to endure, Davis’ injury plagued season could scare them off. Yet, if they feel confident in his health, there may be no linebacker that better suits their needs.