The Miami Dolphins need to beef up at linebacker, so which prospects could they target after the first round in the 2017 NFL Draft
The Miami Dolphins shocked a lot of the football world last season, reeling off six straight victories in the middle of the season, and nine out of 11 total. That impressive streak was good enough to get the Dolphins to their first playoff appearance since 2008. By all rights, it was a great start to the Adam Gase era in Miami.
But that success was had largely in spite of the defense. Miami finished in the bottom three against the rush last season, and were middle of the pack against the pass. Their success against the pass was largely due to the fact that teams could run at will on Miami, so why pass more than you have to? If the Dolphins are going to build on the successes of last season, they are going to need to improve their front seven in a big way.
Lucky for them, the 2017 NFL Draft is the perfect opportunity to improve a defense. This draft class is one of the deepest I have ever seen at every level of the defense. Though they put in some work during the offseason at the linebacker position, it’s likely the Dolphins aren’t done addressing the position. If the team decides to beef up the defensive line, offensive line, or another position in the first round, who are some linebackers they could target after round 1? Let’s take a look at the top 5 linebackers available after Day 1.
In a draft with this much talent on the defensive side of the ball, there’s going to be some first-round caliber talent that slips into Day 2. One of those who is likely to have to hear his name called is the talented linebacker from Florida, Jarrad Davis. In a thinner draft, Davis would be a no-brainer in the first, but Davis’ misfortune could be the Dolphins gain.
The Dolphins desperately need to get better against the run, but if the last quarter of the season taught the fans anything, they also need to get better at coverage in the middle of the field. Tight ends ate the Dolphins defensive alive down the stretch, and really exposed the fact that the only reason this defense wasn’t worse against the pass was opportunity.
Davis won’t help the Dolphins defense improve much against the run, but he’s probably the best coverage linebacker available in this draft. Davis is a solid tackler, but struggles at times shedding blocker, making him a liability in the run game. He’s got great range and plays very well in space, though, making him the perfect fit for Miami’s coverage needs.
With the moves the Dolphins made in the offseason, it’s unlikely that the Dolphins are going to spend two early selections on linebacker, but if they do, pairing Davis with a linebacker who is strong against the run would instantly improve the defense by a wide margin.
Another talented linebacker who would be a sure-fire first round selection in most other classes is Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan. Ohio State has had a tendency in recent years to produce linebackers with some extreme talent — Ryan Shazier and Joshua Perry immediately jump to mind — and McMillan is the next in line. Whomever is fortunate enough to snag McMillian has a linebacker with perennial Pro Bowl potential on their hands. He’s exactly the kind of linebacker the Dolphins would love.
Where Jarrad Davis struggles, McMillan excels. McMillan is very strong in run support, having a great ability to stay clean, and shed blockers when he’s not. He takes great angles to the ball carrier and is a big-time hitter when he gets there. He had a bit of a down year last year playing a bit heavier than his frame supports, but if he slims down by 10-15 pounds, McMillian would be a perfect fit in Miami.
On the flip side, though, where Davis excels, McMillan struggles. McMillan isn’t a natural coverage linebacker, and really struggled at times to stay with his man. He’s not the prototypical sideline-to-sideline linebacker, but the Dolphins wouldn’t need him to be. McMillan’s pros against the run outweigh his cons in the passing game.
Both Jarrad Davis and Raekwon McMillan would be excellent choices for the Dolphins early on Day 2. Both linebackers fill glaring weaknesses in the Dolphins linebacker corps. However, with the Dolphins signing Lawrence Timmons away from the Pittsburgh Steelers, and re-signing their own in Kiko Alonso, it’s possible the team no longer sees linebacker as a position of great need.
I don’t think it’s likely that the Dolphins come out of the 2017 NFL Draft without addressing the linebacker position at all. Timmons isn’t a long-term solution at the position. Alonso, though the best of the Dolphins linebackers last season, is average at best. They still need help at the position, but could wait until Day 3 to add draftees. If the team waits until the final day, there are still some very intriguing prospects likely to be available.
One of the most intriguing prospects in the latter portions of the draft is Arizona linebacker Paul Magloire Jr. If Magloire was a couple inches taller and 15 pounds heavier, he’d likely be talked about among the top linebacker prospects in this draft. Other than size, Magloire has the skills to be an effective linebacker at the NFL level. His instincts and strong tackling ability make him a decent option against the run. His agility and athleticism make him good in the passing game.
However, his size and inability to shed blockers is likely going to leave Magloire in a position where he’ll need to make a contribution on special teams in order to stick around. But, if he manages to get a bit stronger and bulkier, he could present a steal in the late rounds.
The Florida Gators defense was absolutely loaded with talent. With guys like Caleb Brantley, Jarrad Davis, Jalen “Teez” Tabor, Marcus Maye, and Quincy Wilson, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. Such was the fate of linebacker Alex Anzalone. Supremely talented in his own right, Anzalone struggled with injuries during his time at Florida. Had he stayed healthy, he’d likely be talked about in the same breath as his linebacker partner, Davis.
When he’s healthy, Anzalone projects up there with the best of them at the linebacker position. He’s a very good athlete with some really good range. He’s another linebacker that is better in the passing game than he is the run game. But he’s no slouch against the run either. Anzalone is a high-motor guy who shows a great willingness to mix it up and take on the ball carrier.
Where he struggles is when he gets locked on with an offensive lineman. If you keep Anzalone clean, he’ll be a great asset in the run game. But he doesn’t always have the functional strength to fight off blockers. A lot of that may have to do with Anzalone’s rather extensive, at this point, injury history.
That injury history is likely to drive Anzalone down draft boards a lot further than his talent would indicate. It probably would have been best for him to come back to Florida for one more year. He would have had one more chance to put together a healthy season. He also wouldn’t be up against such a stacked defensive class. However, had he suffered another injury, his career may have been over before it started. I can’t fault him for declaring.
Anzalone poses the biggest risk of anyone on this list, and possibly anyone at the position in this draft. However, if he can string together a healthy career and make a strong contribution on special teams to start his career, Anzalone could blossom into a very good NFL linebacker.
Sep 10, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; Boston College linebacker Matt Milano (28) celebrates a sack against Massachusetts during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
1. Matt Milano – Boston College
With names like Luke Kuechly and Mark Herzlich, Boston College has established itself as somewhat of a linebacker factory in recent years. The next name in that impressive lineage could be Matt Milano. A little talked about prospect, Milano has the potential to be a very nice pickup for the Dolphins, should they wait until the final stages of the draft to address the linebacker spot.
Massively productive in his two seasons as a starter, Milano did a little bit of everything for Boston College. He is a very strong linebacker against the run, showing a lot of toughness and strong tackling. He was also nimble enough to hold his own when asked to drop back in coverage. He’s got strong instincts, and is decisive in his decision making, for better or worse.
What drives Milano down draft boards is that he simply doesn’t have the measurable that most teams are going to be looking for from the position. He’s not big enough, he’s not strong enough, and he’s not fast enough. At least that’s what the numbers tell you.
If the NFL has taught us anything, though, it’s that the game isn’t all about measurables. You simply can’t measure a kid’s heart. Milano is a tough, gritty player who could potentially overcome what the numbers say he’ll be. He wouldn’t be the first Dolphins linebacker to overcome long odds to be productive.