Dolphins’ McCain eager to seize starting linebacker opportunity

With former third-overall pick Dion Jordan suspended again and multiple roster changes over the offseason, the Miami Dolphins have placed Chris McCain as the starting strongside linebacker during OTAs.  

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DAVIE, Fla. –€” Among a crowded group of fresh faces and returning veterans during the Miami Dolphins organized team activities taking place at the team’s Doctors Hospital Training Facility at Nova Southeastern University, linebacker Chris McCain may not be as flashy a name as some of the rookies and recent big-name free agent acquisitions, but his role on the team is no less important.

After an up-and-down first season as an undrafted free agent out of the University of California where he showed promise but didn’t see regular playing time, McCain has been working on his game over the offseason and is seeking to build more muscle and gain weight in order to solidify a consistent role with the Dolphins.

With former third-overall pick Dion Jordan suspended again and multiple roster changes over the offseason, the Dolphins have placed McCain as the starting strongside linebacker during OTAs out of a group that includes second-year player Jordan Tripp, Spencer Paysinger and Kelvin Sheppard.

"I don’t think any one of us would have been surprised if any of us would have been starting," said McCain. "I wouldn’t be surprised if Paysinger was in the starting lineup. We were all expecting that one of us would be there because the competition is so good."

As he learned from last year where minutes were hard to come by despite having his moments on special teams, including a first week play against the New England Patriots where he blocked a punt that led to a touchdown, McCain understands it’s not enough to be handed the starting role this early in the year.

"No, it’s never locked down," he said. "I’m still fighting every day. We’re all still trying to learn the defense together. But yes, it’s a fight every day so tomorrow it could be somebody else starting. It’s not locked down at all."

Considering he only saw limited action in 10 games as a linebacker with five tackles and a sack, McCain knows full well he must earn it first. This time however, there is a golden opportunity to make a name for himself in a position of clear need for the Dolphins. After finishing 24th in the NFL last season against the run, Miami passed on drafting a linebacker last month and flirted with the idea of inserting the talented but troubled Jordan into an underwhelming linebacker unit featuring Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins.

The release of starting linebacker Philip Wheeler and the departure of Dannell Ellerbe in the Kenny Stills trade with the New Orleans Saints in March — coupled with Jordan’s suspension — has opened the door for the talented and versatile McCain to finally make a name for himself.

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"It feels good," he said. "I feel like I’ve accomplished a little bit. Just to start OTAs off with the starting group, I feel like I’ve done a lot. I feel good about myself. I felt like I’ve progressed in the right way. I feel like the coaches have seen that also."

Indeed they have, and head coach Joe Philbin is excited about McCain’s potential as a starting linebacker.

"He’s been playing linebacker since he got here, he’s been in that room," Philbin said. "On third down, in different situations, we’ve used him as a defensive end, but it’s not foreign that he’s playing linebacker. Again, he’s a young guy, he’s a guy that benefits from every repetition he gets out there. I think he’s shown himself pretty well so far. It’s very early and we’re just getting guys in and getting them reps."

Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle cautioned to not read too much into McCain’s promotion this early in the offseason, noting that the team is trying to build depth across multiple positions to better prepare for future circumstances. Regardless, McCain’s pure talent, as well his speed and tenacity, could greatly enhance the linebacker unit this season if he can put together a strong showing at OTAs, June’s mini-camp and in training camp.

"Chris is a really good athlete," Coyle said. "He’s got good coverage skills. He’s got length. He’s got good pass rush skills. He’s a good blitzer. Some of his skill set lends to the linebacker position, some of it lends to being a pass rusher. Our charge right now is to make sure he’s getting enough work rushing the passer and at the linebacker position. He’s been getting a lot of base work at linebacker and a lot of rush work with our nickel package.

"We’re going to continue to do that and we’re cross training Koa (Misi) and Kelvin (Sheppard), (they) are both doing great work out here at the Mike position. We’re going to make sure that they learn multiple positions, so that, at the end of the day when we look at our core linebackers, we’re making sure we’ve got the right guys on the field."

You can follow Surya Fernandez on Twitter @SuryaHeatNBA or email him at SuryaFoxSports@gmail.com.