Part five of an occasional eight part series examining the state of the Dolphins by position, with metrics from last season and where things stand moving forward.
The Dolphins know they need to add linebackers who are skilled pass-rushers and can play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense when they use that scheme. (They will also continue to use a 4-3 at times.)
But here’s one thing they say they already have: a couple of ascending young inside linebackers.
New Dolphins linebackers coach Rob Leonard on Friday raved about Jerome Baker and Raekwon McMillan, two players who will be important pieces of this rebuild, presuming they continue to improve.
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“I had a chance to go to Ohio State to meet Jerome last year when he was coming out,” said Leonard, who coached outside linebackers for the New York Giants last season. “Smart kid, great athlete. Absolutely [his speed] can only help you. The game is a space game and he’s able to do that. I can’t tell you how excited I am to work with him.”
Baker held up better in the run game that some Dolphins people expected, considering he’s undersized at 215-to-225 pounds, compared with 248 for McMillan.
PFF rated Baker 14th among 79 qualifying linebackers against the run — eight spots behind McMillan but 20 ahead of Kiko Alonzo.
Baker’s 79 tackles were tied for seventh among rookie linebackers and he had three sacks.
“For a guy that’s somewhat undersized, he played more stout than what we thought he would,” former Dolphins linebackers coach Frank Bush said. “He runs around and makes plays on the ball. He did his job in the run game as well as he can, and once he gets bigger and stronger, he will be even better.”
Regarding McMillan — who had 105 tackles — Leonard said: “He did improve. I just hope to build on that with him. He’s another physical, tough guy. Can run, can hit. He finished the year strong. I’m excited to work with him.”
PFF rated McMillan sixth among all linebackers against the run and no NFL linebacker had more run stops (holding the opponent to a play that PFF deemed unsuccessful) over the final four weeks.
“Earlier in the season, I wasn’t playing how I wanted to play,” McMillan said. “But I came on. I’m not hobbling around anymore. My knee feels good. I picked up my practice habits and started running to the ball more. I knew it’s in me; just had to bring it out.”
Former linebackers coach Bush — who was hired by Adam Gase to be the Jets’ inside linebackers coach — said McMillan “got better and better [against the run], became more stout, started understanding schemes and where his fits were and where we wanted him to be.”
Whether Alonso will be a part of the rebuilding program longterm remains to be seen. But Leonard made clear he values him. Alonso was 10th in the league with 125 tackles despite missing a game. He also had two forced fumbles and three interceptions.
“Kiko plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” Leonard said. “He plays fast, plays physical, plays with a motor. There’s not much not to like there.”
If he’s on the team, Alonso is due salaries of $6.5 million and $6.4 million in the final two years of his contract. The Dolphins would have $4.7 million in cap savings and a $3.5 million dead money cap hit if they trade or surprisingly release him this offseason.
But here’s the problem with this group: Dolphins linebackers remain among the worst in the league in pass coverage.
Here were the gruesome final numbers in pass coverage:
▪ McMillan allowed 36 of 41 passes thrown in his coverage area to be caught for 368 yards; his 143.6 passer rating against was second-worst among NFL linebackers and his six touchdowns allowed through the air were second-most, behind only Tahair Whiteside.
▪ Baker shows some promise in pass coverage, with an interception return for a touchdown against the Jets. But of the other 49 passes thrown against him, he allowed 39 catches for 381 yards and a TD.
He must be better in this area, considering that was considered his strength out of Ohio State. And he has the ability to be better in this area because of his speed and athleticism.
▪ Alonso had the three picks but allowed 53 completions (14th most among linebackers) in 75 attempts for 638 yards and four TDs (tied for fourth most by linebackers). PFF rated him 88th among 91 linebackers against the pass.
Yes, NFL linebackers are at a natural disadvantage in the passing game against fast backs, receivers and tight ends. But Dolphins linebackers’ struggles in coverage remain one of the problems they can never seem to solve, though Baker has potential to excel there potentially and Alonso deserves credit for the three interceptions.
Former Dolphins linebackers coach Bush insists McMillan can shore up his pass coverage – though he seemed a step slow at times – and asserted improvement “will come with experience. The more he sees things, the better off he will be because he will react faster. Sometimes the coverage is zone coverage and he’s out there reacting. The more he sees, the better he will be.”
And here’s the other problem: Asked if there’s a single linebacker on the roster capable of playing outside linebacker in a 3-4, Leonard said: “Not really there yet. Wish I could give you a better answer.”
The answer is probably no. And that makes that a priority position this offseason.
▪ Final 2018 snap counts at linebacker: Alonso 1004, McMillan 831, Baker 679, Mike Hull 65, Stephone Anthony 29, Chase Allen 19.
▪ Contract status: Alonso is under contract through 2020, McMillan through 2021 and Baker through 2022. Allen is under contract for next season. Anthony is an unrestricted free agent and Hull is a restricted free agent.
Here was part 1 of my series on the Dolphins’ running back situation, including eye-opening numbers on Kenyan Drake.
Here was part 2 of my series on the Dolphins’ receiver situation.
Here was part 3 of my series examining percolating issues in the defensive backfield.
Here was part 4 of my series on the state of the offensive line and potential changes.