Next up in the series of training camp positional previews are the linebackers. In previous posts, I have discussed the cornerbacks and safeties. (Note: for the sake of these positional previews, I am considering Jason Taylor as a defensive end rather than as a linebacker even though he plays both in the 3-4 hybrid defense.)
What to expect: Whereas the secondary unit poses serious questions and is clearly a weakness on an otherwise strong defense, the linebacking corps looks to be in great shape for the coming season. The starting trio of Channing Crowder, Zach Thomas, and Joey Porter is set in stone providing there are no injuries before the start of the season. There is experienced depth as well youthful potential. All one needs to do is look to how the linebacking corps played last year with Donnie Spragan as a starter to know that this year's group will be even more dominant. Some critics may say that Joey Porter is on the decline, and that very well may be true. But there's absolutely no denying that he is leaps and bounds ahead of Spragan, especially when it comes to rushing the quarterback. This group will once again stuff the opposing running game, and they should have an easier time pressuring the quarterback.
Here's a closer look at the individual linebackers currently on the roster and what can be expected of them this coming season:
It seems that during every recent offseason I have heard the same thing said about Thomas: this is the year he really starts to show his age. And yet I'm still waiting to see any signs of him slowing down. It's unrealistic to think that at 33 years of age and with 11 seasons of NFL experience that the game hasn't taken its toll on him. Even so, his on-field production hasn't taken a hit. In fact, he posted career-high marks last year of 165 tackles and 3 sacks. Sure, he may move a bit slower, but speed was never Thomas' game. Until I see concrete examples of his play slipping, I will continue to expect great things from Zach. He has the MLB spot locked down, and he will keep stuffing runners like we have all come to expect. His mental leadership and ability to call out assignments is critical to this defense's success.
Replacing Donnie Spragan in the starting lineup will be Joey Porter. As I said previously, Porter is an immedite upgrade over Spragan, regardless of whether you think Porter's skill is in decline. I have my doubts about that as I think some of his problems last season can be attributed to an injured hamstring. Hopefully that will not become a nagging issue in the future. Porter is pretty good in pass coverage, but his biggest impact will be in pressuring the quarterback - something that Spragan was woefully unable to accomplish. Having a speedy outside blitzing threat opposite Jason Taylor is going to create tremendous mismatch potential. There's only so many blockers that can stay in to double-team and chip-block, and when the pass rush is coming from both sides it makes it even harder to contain. Porter's ability to notch somewhere between 7 and 10 sacks along with consistently forcing the QB to rush his throws will greatly increase the defense's turnover potential.
In only two seasons, Crowder has proven to be an excellent young player with a good amount of upside still remaining. He has shown that he is worthy of being a starter, but he must work on getting in position to make big plays. In his two seasons, Crowder has only one sack and zero INTs. At only 23 years old, the best is still yet to come, and the third year in Dom Caper's defensive scheme may be the turning point where Crowder finally realizes some sort of big-play potential. This will be an important year for Channing to show what type of player he can be down the road.
If Spragan was the team's starting strong-side linebacker this season, I would have been disappointed. He just doesn't have the pass-rushing ability to excel as a starting outside linebacker. However, I think Spragan makes an ideal backup. He's smart enough to play every LB spot should someone go down with an injury or need a breather. He also doesn't make many mistakes, playing consistently solid football. He's not a big-play threat, but I definitely wouldn't panic if he had to start a game or two throughout the season.
Pope has always impressed me when he gets a chance to play. On several occasions he has entered the game after Thomas or Crowder were injured and played very well. He doesn't have amazing physical tools, but he is a good young backup who can spot-start in an emergency. He is also a valuable special teams asset.
Akbar was seeing time as a LB/DE hybrid during the team's minicamps. He is a three-year veteran who hasn't made any significant accomplishments thus far in his career. The drafting of Abraham Wright is going to make it difficult for Gbaja-Biamila to win a roster spot.
Maxwell was signed to the team last season after Pope went down with an injury. He played primarily in a special teams role. Maxwell's chances of making the roster this season are very slim since the team drafted two LBs.
McCune did not see the field in any of Miami's 16 games last season. I don't see that trend changing since he probably won't make the team.
Smith is well-suited to be a backup ILB in a 3-4 defense. He's not very fast and he struggles in pass coverage, but he is good at stopping the run. He is also very tough and aggressive - two attributes that make him a prime special teams contributor. He has a lot of experience coming out of college and that will help him transition.
Although he played DE in college, Wright will most likely be more of an OLB/DE hybrid for the Dolphins. His small size makes him poor against stopping the run, but he is an above-average pass-rusher. He could fill the role of a pass-rush specialist vacated by David Bowens. He didn't play much special-teams in college, so it's yet to be seen whether he'll be able to make an impact there for Miami. His roster spot isn't a sure thing, so it will be important for him to contribute on special teams.
Most likely a camp body, although he could find his way onto the practice squad if he has a good enough training camp.
Here's my predicted depth chart:
1. Zach Thomas (MLB)
2. Joey Porter (SLB)
3. Channing Crowder (WLB)
4. Donnie Spragan
5. Derrick Pope
6. Kelvin Smith
7. Abraham Wright
Training camp battle to watch: The last couple LB spots are very much up in the air. The two drafted rookies (Smith and Wright) are going to have to battle it out with Gbaja-Biamila, Maxwell, and McCune. I think the rookies will win out because the veterans look to have already reached their ceiling while the rookies still have some untapped potential.