by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist
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 teams contributor.
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. Overall speed.
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.