Out with the old and expensive, in with the new and equally expensive.
Linebacker was not listed atop the Miami Dolphins' offseason needs, but they addressed it as aggressively as if they had none on the roster. That's probably because, shortly after the respective signings of Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler were announced, they released Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett respectively.
Dansby and Burnett were brought in during the Tony Sparano era to help implement a 3-4 look. Now, with defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle running a predominantly 4-3 front, the Dolphins felt it was time to target linebackers to fit that scheme.
ProFootballFocus.com released a detailed chart of the grades for all four players—the two signees and the two released veterans—which seems to indicate the Dolphins took a step back with both signings.
Pro Football Focus @PFF
What do the stats say about the Dolphins LB switcheroo? Take a look: http://t.co/GUUPzKL5HK3/13/2013, 3:54:07 PM
*click the photo for a full-size image
Both new players were more productive pass-rushers and allowed fewer yards per completion in 2012 than the players that preceded them.
Hangst, who covers the AFC North, says Ellerbe could prove a solid fit at inside linebacker for the Dolphins.
Ellerbe is a strong inside linebacking presence. In 2012, he had the skills to take over for Ray Lewis as well as the ability to make him look good—an impressive feat considering how poorly the Ravens had been on defense for the early part of last season. He was the most important Ravens free agent, but the two sides simply couldn't get a deal done in time. The Dolphins didn't get anything flashy, but they certainly got a talent. The key is if he can live up to his pretty hefty contract. 2012 was his biggest career workload by far.
He has done a majority of his work as an inside linebacker in a 3-4, but he will be asked to play in a 4-3 in Miami. In fact, he has played in a 3-4 dating all the way back to his days at Georgia. That's not to say he can't be successful in a 4-3, but it's something to think about.
Now, not only will he be asked to continually carry the workload he carried in 2012, but he'll also be asked to do it in a new defensive alignment.
As for Wheeler, the fit is a little more clear. Hansen thinks he could play at either outside linebacker spot in a 4-3 defense, and even points out another interesting tidbit about Wheeler's duties in Oakland, which included being the team's signal-caller.
Wheeler did it all for the Raiders in 2012, even taking over the green dot and calling the defensive plays after Rolando McClain was demoted. The Raiders asked Wheeler to do too much in 2012, which may have actually hurt his production in some areas. Take some responsibility away from Wheeler and he might be even better than he was in 2012.
Wheeler plays with his hair on fire, which is exactly how you want a linebacker to play the game. Wheeler is comfortable dropping into zone coverage and does a good job against slower tight ends in man coverage. Wheeler plays fast, which means he will be prone to misreading a play in the run game on occasion. When Wheeler is in open space, he's a good tackler except that he tends to lead with his helmet (read: penalties). Wheeler played strong-side linebacker for the Raiders in 2012, but he can probably play either outside linebacker spot in a 4-3.
Wheeler was a role player with the Colts in a 4-3 for the first few years of his career, and the Dolphins actually had a chance to sign him last year before he chose to go to the Raiders instead.
With his sizable contract, the Dolphins are likely expecting him to carry the heavy load he had as a member of the Raiders defense, while carrying out the duties he had as a member of the Colts defense.
The injection of youth into the Dolphins linebacking corps could help them defend tight ends over the middle and running backs out of the backfield, where they ranked 13th and 28th respectively, according to Football Outsiders.
That being said, it doesn't fix all the woes with their pass defense. In fact, they still have a hole or two to fill at cornerback, depending on whether Sean Smith stays or goes elsewhere.
Either way, one thing is clear: The Dolphins have a plan for getting their defense to come together, and in the last year of his contract as GM of the Dolphins, Jeff Ireland figures he has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless otherwise specified, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.
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