The Miami Dolphins’ linebacker unit has been one of its more quiet positions in recent years. With a lack of a big name like Cameron Wake or Brent Grimes as well as shallow depth, the ‘Phins looked to offseason additions Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler entering 2014. These two on the outside gave Dolphins fans confidence after both recorded career years the season before, each posting over 100 total tackles. With a reliable Koa Misi in the middle, the unit looked to have three solid linebackers. But, Ellerbe’s season ended with a hip injury in week one and Wheeler began to fall out of form. Suddenly, the ‘Phins needed a strong answer from a precarious depth chart.
Enter Jelani Jenkins. The 2013 fourth round pick out of Florida would end up being the team’s leading tackler at season’s end with 110 tackles as well as leading the AFC East with 83 solo tackles. His stellar year not only filled in for the disappointing performances of the outside linebackers, but gave the front office confidence to part ways with the aging Wheeler and trade Ellerbe for an offensive weapon in wide receiver Kenny Stills. Jenkin’s athleticism and versatility makes him valuable on the outside in pass coverage as well as a speedy tackler. After his breakout year, Jenkins seems like a long-term answer for the Dolphins, but he will need to stay healthy and solidify his performance in his sophomore starting campaign.
In 2015, the ‘Phins are hoping for another Jenkins-like emergence out of Chris McCain, an undrafted free agent out of California in 2014. He appears to be leading the competition for the third spot in front of rookies Mike Hull and Zach Vigil, who were pleasant surprises in OTAs. At 6 foot 5, 240, McCain possesses a thinner frame with speedy versatility similar to Jenkins. In his second year, I am hopeful that rookies Hull and Vigil will push McCain in offseason competition to maximize his abilities coming in to the season. If McCain can also learn from Jenkins and his 2014 breakout year, he could make a similar impact on the weak side.
The starting three ‘backers add great value with their youth and rookie contracts. They are a key reason why the front office has gone after big money up front and on the offensive side of the ball. Although lacking depth, this unit can lean on the front four and become an essential and overlooked piece of this promising defense.