Jan 1, 2017; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi (23) avoids a tackle from New England Patriots middle linebacker Donta Hightower (54) during the second half at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
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The Miami Dolphins will enter free agency needing at least one and possibly three linebackers for the 2017 season.
Kiko Alonso is not a lock to return but as an exclusive rights free agent it’s highly unlikely that he goes anywhere. In addition, Alonso grew into a leader in 2016 and the Dolphins like the impact he made.
What isn’t so clear is the future of Jelani Jenkins, an impending unrestricted free agent, and Koa Misi who is battling a potentially career ending neck injury. Miami’s problem is that behind those two starters no internal starter exists.
Miami has to have a plan for entering free agency and that plan will lead to the NFL Draft in late April. Breaking it down isn’t easy and fixing the problem will not be cheap. In fact, linebacker could be a high-priced flirtation for the Dolphins executives once free agency begins.
Ideally the Dolphins would love to have their linebacker group fixed by the time the draft arrives which would allow them to concentrate on the defensive line and defensive end where the Dolphins need to upgrade as well. Remember the Dolphins were horrible in run defense last season despite the presence of Ndamukong Suh.
The Dolphins will have options at linebacker in free agency but the question is how much are they willing to spend and will they go older or younger?
There are a lot of fans who believe that Hightower would be a big inside linebacker signing. Some will point to the strengthening of Miami’s linebacker group while at the same time weakening New England. There are others who believe that Hightower will not make it to free agency.
Hightower is good but is he good because he is part of the New England system or is he that talented? His contract should fall somewhere around the $10 million per season mark.
Hightower had 2.5 sacks last season and really didn’t add much pressure averaging 1.24 quarterback hurries in 2016 according to Spotrac.com. Hightower also doesn’t have any interceptions in his NFL career and only one recovered fumble and no forced fumbles. As a starter in 2016, Hightower registered 65 combined tackles on the season.
Seems like $10 million should buy more productivity.
Dec 11, 2016; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills inside linebacker Zach Brown (53) jumps to make a catch in the end zone for an interception during the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at New Era Field. Pittsburgh beat Buffalo 27-20. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
The Buffalo Bills will try to keep Brown and Brown wants to stay with the Bills but money will go a long way in what decision Brown makes. The reality is that the Dolphins are far closer to challenging the Patriots than the Bills are and that too could sway his decision to leave Buffalo if Miami shows interest.
At 27 years old Brown is only a year and half older than Hightower but statistically he also far and away better than Hightower and frankly worth more than $10 million that Hightower is rumored to want.
Over his career Brown has developed into one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL and the Dolphins really should consider trying to persuade him to join the team this off-season. Brown has seven interceptions, three fumble recoveries, and two forced fumbles but where he earns his money is in tackles.
Brown posted 94 solo tackles in 2016 which is more than Hightower had combined. Additionally he added 49 assisted tackles. While last year was high even for Brown, his previous seasons had tackle totals of 76, 91, and 93. In other words he is consistent. He also has 14 sacks in his career with four of those coming in 2016.
Nov 13, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi (23) is wrapped up by San Diego Chargers outside linebacker Melvin Ingram (54) and San Diego Chargers free safety Dwight Lowery (20) during the fourth quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Moving outside the soon to be former San Diego Charger may be one of the best outside linebackers in this years free agency class. Ingram is very talented. Ingram had 8 sacks in 2016 and 10.5 in 2015. He has proven himself a solid edge containment linebacker that can stop the run. Something Miami needs.
Ingram’s downside is that he isn’t as effective in pass protection and it’s an area where he will need to continue to mature. In 2016 Ingram posted a combined 60 tackles with all but 14 being solo tackles. A good characteristic for an outside linebacker who tends to be stuck on their own island.
There has been a lot of early talk that the Dolphins would show interest in Ingram and Ingram is friends with several Dolphins players and has expressed, unofficially, a desire to play in Miami. This is a player to watch as the free agency period begins.
Dec 18, 2016; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander (57) against the Cleveland Browns at New Era Field. Buffalo beats Cleveland 33 to 13. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
Jones is an interesting option and one that the Dolphins would be wiser to avoid. His Spotrac market value is in the $16.2 million range per season and frankly that is way more than the Dolphins need to spend with so many other needs on the team.
Jones, 26, is at the top of his game right now. He has posted double digit sack totals in all two of his five seasons. The Cardinals are leaning towards using the franchise tag on Jones if he can’t be signed long term but if he hits the market is the top of the list for many teams with cap space to spend.
The 33 year old outside linebacker is still productive if not hitting the final years of his career. Alexander has been in the league for 10 seasons playing for four different teams. Last year he posted his first double digit sack total in his entire career.
2016 was Alexander’s best season by far and it’s not a surprise that he will be able to parlay that season into a final contract of what will only be a two year deal at most. His market value is trending around the $6 million mark.
If the Dolphins are hoping to stay on the cheap side in free agency or if someone like Ingram is not attainable than Alexander may be a short term option while they develop a draft pick to replace him.
Signing a linebacker to start this late in his career is not ideal and should only be a fall back consideration for the Dolphins.