Next up in the series of training camp positional previews are the linebackers.
What to expect: With the trade of Jason Taylor, the linebacking corps is in a bit of disarray at the moment, and it will be crucial for someone to step up and show the pass rushing ability necessary to man Taylor's vacated outside linebacker position. Longtime Dolphin stalwart Zach Thomas will also be missing this year, and his leadership and play-calling mastery will be sorely missed. Thankfully, the team added some linebackers via free agency and trades who should at least improve the horrific run defense from a year ago. This unit still has a long ways to go before it has any cohesion though.
Here's a closer look at the individual linebackers currently on the roster and what can be expected of them this coming season:
Crowder is taking over for a true Dolphins legend, and he's going to need to take several significant steps forward if he hopes to succeed as the starting inside linebacker responsible for making the play adjustments. So far in his career, he has proven to be an adequate starter, but he is by no means a playmaker. He did manage 3 QB hits and 6 QB hurries last season, so maybe he can turn into a decent, if unspectacular, pass rusher from the middle. He is serviceable as a run-stopper but could certainly improve in that area as well. Perhaps most importantly, Crowder will simply need to be more involved in the defense this year. Zach Thomas led the entire league last year in the percentage of team defensive plays he made with an astounding 21.7% (adjusted for playing time). Crowder made a solid 14.1% of the defense's plays, but without Thomas in the middle anymore, there will be many more opportunities for Crowder to get involved. This is his contract year, so he'll need to show the new coaching staff a good reason to extend his contract and keep him in Miami.
Joey Porter had a horrible first half to last season as he struggled to fully recover from offseason knee surgery and adapt to a position that didn't suit his strengths. Well, this season he is returning to the 3-4 OLB position that he thrived in during his tenure in Pittsburgh. However, the question still remains whether age and injuries have caught up to him and slowed him down. He did finish last season on somewhat of a tear, notching 4 sacks in the final 5 games, so there is hope that he can return to being a prominent pass rusher - something this defense sorely needs.
Ayodele was brought over from Dallas, and his familiarity with the defense gives him a leg up on the starting inside linebacker spot next to Crowder. Ayodele was useless as a pass rusher last season and I don't expect that to change much this year. On the other hand, he just may be the team's best run-stopping linebacker.
Anderson is getting the first crack at replacing Jason Taylor at OLB. He has been mainly a special teams player throughout his career, but is getting the opportunity to start in Miami. He's 27 years old, so it seems like if he had any real potential as a pass rushing threat he would have been utilized more in Houston at some point. Maybe Miami's coaching staff sees a different way to use him that will make him more effective. In limited time last season he did manage to record 2 sacks, 1 QB hit, and 3 hurries.
Torbor played well for the Champion New York Giants during their impressive stretch run last season, and Parcells and Ireland brought him in to shore up the LB depth. He played OLB in New York, but he is working exclusively at ILB in Miami. That could change as training camp progresses, but he will probably be Miami's first LB option off the bench.
Ninkovich was claimed off waivers last season, but most of the action he saw came on special teams. He's a converted college DE, and if he wants a spot on the roster he'll have to prove he can stand up and rush the passer.
Miles was a big surprise as an undrafted rookie free agent last season, becoming the team's best special teams tackler. He actually was one of the league leaders in special teams stops, notching 16 of them and forcing a fumble. If I had my way, Miles would stick around as a young special teams stud.
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 should make him a solid special teams contributor, and which should also make him attractive to the new coaching staff.
Glymph has history with the coaches from his time in Dallas, but he's never really shown anything special. He's real big but he is slow as molasses. It'd make more sense to go with someone younger.
Poppinga has the versatility to play either ILB or OLB, but at the NFL level he projects mostly as a backup and special teams player. Because of a Mormon mission, he's already 26, which takes away from some of his value as a developmental player. Still, he's very smart and comes with all the intagibles a coach is looking for in a bottom of the roster guy. He'll compete for a spot on the practice squad.
Saunders, an undrafted rookie free agent, impressed some people during minicamps, but he's competing for a spot on the practice squad.
Like Saunders, Brown is competing for a spot on the practice squad.
Here's my predicted depth chart:
LOLB Joey Porter
LILB Channing Crowder
RILB Akin Ayodele
ROLB Charlie Anderson
1. Reggie Torbor
2. Edmond Miles
3. Kelvin Smith
4. Rob Ninkovich
5. Kelly Poppinga (practice squad)
Training camp battle to watch: Anderson vs. Quentin Moses (listed as a DE) for the starting ROLB spot.