On a periodic basis between now and the 2005 NFL Draft, I
will take an in-depth look at the Dolphins. This week: Linebackers.
Current State: Once a position of weakness, depth-wise, the Dolphins now enjoy the
services of an excellent corps of linebackers. At the heart of this group is
the amazing Zach Thomas, now entering his 10th season (can you
believe it?). A consummate professional, Thomas had a frustrating year as he
fought through both injury (hamstring) and the pall of a 4-12 season. But
Thomas had what was probably his best year in terms of productivity per game,
logging a team-high 145 tackles (85 solo) while playing in just 13 games
(really only 12 if we throw out the one series he tried to play in the contest
against the 49ers). Had Zach stayed healthy, he’d have likely been invited to
his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl.
One day Thomas will be invited to the Hall of Fame as will his teammate,
Junior Seau. Junior is another guy who was on pace for an outstanding season
before being clipped short with a torn pectoral muscle. Through 8 games Junior
had racked up 57 tackles (31 solo), putting him on pace for 100+ tackles for
the 7th time in his illustrious career. Count me in as someone who
hopes Junior will be back in 2005 as he can still play; hopefully his salary
issues can be worked out in an agreeable fashion. At 250lbs. he would be a
perfect fit for the 3-4 looks favored by Nick Saban, either inside or out.
Seau’s teammate on the weak side, Morlon Greenwood, had his best season as
a Dolphin. Greenwood’s 108 tackles (66 solo), his first 100+ season, proved
that he has finally emerged as a legitimate NFL starter. His most impressive
effort came in the big win against the Patriots, where he logged an impressive
11 tackles. Making more “big plays” is the next step for Greenwood.
Eddie Moore finally got a chance to justify his second round draft choice
status this season. A second year player who lost his rookie season to a foot injury,
Moore showed only sporadic flashes of talent before going down with a knee
injury in the December 12th game against Denver. The jury is still
out on Moore, especially given what the Dolphins paid for him. With a new coach
and a new scheme, 2005 is likely a make-or-break year for him as a Dolphin.
Replacing Moore was Brendon Ayanbadejo, strictly a special teams performer
until he got his first career start against the Patriots. Dolfans fondly recall
the heroic effort he gave in that game with 6 tackles and a huge interception
of an ill-advised Tom Brady pass that set the Dolphins up for the upset win.
While undersized for a full time defensive role, Ayanbadejo is a valued special
One of the pleasant surprises of 2004 was rookie MLB Derrick Pope. A
seventh round steal (222nd pick overall), Pope quickly impressed the
coaches with his nose for the ball…something that just cannot be coached. Pope
played special teams for most of the season but got his big break against the
49ers when Thomas went down. He certainly made his share of rookie mistakes but
flashed plenty of ability in between. If Pope continues to improve, expect him
to contend for full time duty in a 3-4 alignment.
Another pleasant surprise was Tony Bua. At only 212lbs, he is just too
small to see meaningful time as a true defensive LB. But, as a special teamer,
he was terrific. One of the best hits you will ever see came on a punt return
against the Rams when Bua delivered a vicious crackback block on defensive
lineman Bryce Fisher that also eliminated another man on the play. "That
was a bone-crusher ... the biggest hit I've ever seen in football," Rams
coach Mike Martz said. "I mean, that was an ugly hit." Later, Fisher
said that he “couldn't breathe right for a couple of weeks, and was coughing up
blood for another 10 days or so". Stuff like that makes coaches smile.
Unfortunately, Bua had to be placed on injured reserve in mid-December with a
quadriceps injury. **Editor's Note: It looks like Bua will be tried at safety this year, according to the latest information from the team.
Renauld Williams, Winston Taylor, Corey Jenkins, and Billy Strother were
all reserves that did not make an appreciable contribution in games.
Strengths: Thomas and quality depth. Seau’s leadership. Good young player in Pope.
Weaknesses: Seau’s salary, age. Moore’s inability to stay healthy. Other than Seau,
questionable size to implement a 3-4 alignment on a regular basis.
Offseason Priority: Low to Medium. While Saban would like to improve the overall size of the
LB corps, the Dolphins have many other needs that rank higher at the present
time. Retaining Seau at a cap-friendly number is important; Junior can still
play and he would give Saban the flexibility to use more of the defensive
change-ups that he believes in.