On a periodic basis between now and the 2006 NFL Draft, I
will take an in-depth look at the Dolphins. This week: Linebackers.
CurrentState: 2005 was a major transitional year for the Dolphin LB
corps as Nick Saban implemented his 3-4 defensive scheme. As a result, there
were new and complex assignments to master. There were also a number of new
faces on the roster as Saban sought to bring more size, flexibility, and youth
to the group.†
In the swirl of all this change was the speculation that the undersized
Zach Thomas, the heart and soul of the Miami
defense, would be a bad fit in Sabanís scheme. The fear was that Zach would be
unable to take on offensive lineman in a 3-4 and thus become a liability
against the run. The skeptics mused that his greatness has been the byproduct
of a 4-3 system that requires active defensive tackles to occupy blockers so he
is free to run and tackle.
Thomas heard the criticism and, as he has his entire career, went out and proved
the naysayers wrong. Not only did Zach commit himself to learning the new
system, he really thrived in it. Once and for all, he killed the notion that he
is a system-bred star. Simply put, he validated his greatness as a player.
This he did while impressively gutting out the last third of the season
with a torn labrum in his shoulder, requiring him to play with a supportive harness.
Once again #54 posted a 100+ tackle season (166). What else is new? The 10-year
veteran has exceeded 100+ tackles everyyear as a pro. He was so dominant
that he earned his sixth Pro Bowl berth, most all-time among Dolphin defenders.
One day Thomas will be invited to
the Hall of Fame as will his teammate, Junior Seau. While Zach still has a lot
of good football left in him, Juniorís career could be all but over. A terrific
team leader, Seau was only able to play in seven games before being placed on Injured Reserve with an
Achilles tendon injury. Clearly, Seauís 36 year old body is failing him. Still,
he would like to return to the Dolphins for one more season. With all of the
other needs this team needs to address, will Junior be able to sneak on to the
Juniorís abbreviated season created more playing time for two newcomers,
rookie Channing Crowder and free agent pick-up Donnie Spragan (Broncos).
Crowder, a third round pick from Florida,
was simply outstanding. He was second on the team in tackles (90), with two
forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. As a rookie, Crowder saw a LOT of playing time, displaying an uncommon level of
maturity. He has the size, speed, and talent to be a Pro Bowler. He also has
the advantage of being able to learn from Zach and Junior. In the locker room,
Crowder kept things light with his positive attitude and happy outlook on life.
Channing Crowder will prove to be a great Dolphin for many years to come.
Spragan started the season in a reserve role but began to see more playing time
when Seau became hobbled, tallying 47 tackles, a sack, and a pick. Spragan was
a steady, if unspectacular, performer. He has the size, intelligence, and speed
to play well in either the 3-4 or 4-3 alignment. 2006 will be contract year for
Spragan as he signed a two-year deal when he joined the team. It will be
interesting to see if he can improve.
Once again, Eddie Moore endured another disappointing season as he was
place on Injured Reserve with a knee injury (his third year in a row on IR). Moore was Miamiís
top pick in 2003, a second round selection. It is difficult to offer analysis
on his game as he has taken very few snaps. In the NFL, the bottom line is
production. After three seasons, it is only fair to label his career as a bust.
Second year man Derrick Pope continued to overachieve his 2004 seventh
round selection (222nd overall) with solid special teams and reserve
play. Twice starting in place of an injured Thomas, he more than held his own.
Pope has outstanding instincts and really runs well. Expect him to compete for
full time duty in the 3-4 alignment in 2006.
Reserves Nick Rogers, LesterTowns, and Jason Glenn
contributed mostly on special teams.
Strengths: The great Zach Thomas, one of the top players in the National Football
League, is the best linebacker the team has ever had; Good young players in Crowder,
Spragan, and Pope; Flexibility of players to line up at multiple positions; Good
overall speed and instincts.
Weaknesses: Lack of quality depth at OLB.
Offseason Priority: Medium. Expect Saban to bring in some fresh talent, guys with the size,
speed, and intelligence to compete for three to four jobs.