Exploring Dolphins’ free agent options at inside linebacker and the money dilemma there
How do the Dolphins improve a defense that was 24th in points allowed at 23.5 points per game?
Cornerback and inside linebacker would be a good place to start. We addressed cornerback here.
At inside linebacker, Jerome Baker and rookie Channing Tindall are the only players under contract for 2023, and Tindall can’t necessarily be counted on for a significant role after playing only nine defensive snaps as a rookie.
One of the key questions of the offseason, beyond backup quarterback:
Do you re-sign Elandon Roberts and Duke Riley for a third consecutive year and say “we’re good” at the position, or do you spend significant money to land a top player from a decent group of free agent inside linebackers?
Or do they do something more radical and cut Jerome Baker, who comes off a 100-tackle season, and sign someone they view as better?
A defensive coordinator will have input on the issue. Vic Fangio, who runs a 3-4 defense with different looks, informed the Dolphins last weekend that he’s taking their coordinator job, but nothing had been announced as of late Wednesday.
The top inside linebacker who was eligible for free agency is no longer available; Roquan Smith signed a multiyear extension with Baltimore, which traded second- and fifth-round picks to Chicago to get the Pro Bowl inside linebacker at the trade deadline.
Among unrestricted free agents, Buffalo’s Tremaine Edmunds (a two-time Pro Bowler who had 102 tackles in 13 games, all starts), Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David (the Miami native had 124 tackles, including 10 for loss, and three sacks) and Philadelphia’s T.J. Edwards are arguably the best of the group. Edwards had 159 tackles, including 10 for loss, this season. All will be costly.
The group includes several other solid starters: San Francisco’s Azeez Al-Shaair (started 22 games the past two seasons but missed Weeks 3 to 9 this year with a sprained MCL), Pittsburgh’s Devin Bush (the Flanagan High/Pembroke Pines native had 81 tackles but just two for loss); Tennessee’s David Long (86 tackles, including seven for loss, in 12 starts); the Raiders’ Denzel Perryman (the UM alum had 83 tackles, including 14 for loss in 12 games) and Dallas’ Leighton Vander Esch (90 tackles and a sack in 14 starts).
There’s also Detroit’s Alex Anzalone (125 tackles, including 7 for loss, in 17 starts); Cincinnati’s Germaine Pratt (99 tackles, two interceptions in 15 starts), Indianapolis’ Bobby Okereke (151 tackles in 15 Colts starts) and the Jets’ Kwon Alexander (69 tackles in 12 games and 7 starts). Alexander also plays outside linebacker.
Though the Bills front seven didn’t play well in their playoff loss against Cincinnati, Edmunds naturally would be appealing because he’s productive, entering his prime at 24 and because landing him would hurt rival Buffalo. He earned $12 million last season and he will be costly; Spotrac lists his market value at $11 million. But Roquan Smith’s deal could drive up the price for Edmunds, a two-time Pro Bowler.
The Bills will have the ability to use the franchise tag on Edmunds, but that would cost the team $18.7 million.
PFF rates Edmunds the 25th best free agent overall in this class, noting that he “made huge strides in coverage in 2022, a major weakness in his game through his first four seasons” and had the third-best coverage grade among off-ball linebackers this season.
PFF rates David seventh among all free agents, calling him “one of the best off-ball linebackers of his generation” and “still playing at an extremely high level... Potentially losing a step or two with age can be negated by elite play recognition and instincts, both of which David has in spades.”
David, who turned 33 this week, was a second-team All Pro in 2016 and 2020. He’s still very good, but a longterm deal would carry risk because of his age.
PFF rates Tennessee’s Long 11th among all free agents, noting that “his 89.0 run-defense grade in 2022 ranked fourth at the position, with his 13 tackles for loss or no gain tied for 12th. Long plays a downhill, attacking brand of football that helps him blow up a lot of plays but also makes him particularly susceptible to over-committing on play-action passes.”
PFF has Philadelphia’s Edwards 24th among all free agents, noting that he helped “turn around the Eagles’ defense [and] was one of just four linebackers to earn grades above 75.0 in run defense and coverage.”
PFF has Pratt 30th among all free agents, and his 90.1 coverage grade was the best among linebackers. Overall, he was the NFL’s top graded linebacker since Week 8.
And PFF has Okreke 36th; he’s better against the run than in coverage.
Vander Esch, who has had some injury issues (including a shoulder this season), is rated 42nd on PFF’s overall top 50 big board of free agents. PFF notes he “quietly played some good football in 2022 after signing a one-year flier to return to the Cowboys following a free agency period that didn’t pan out as he’d hoped.”
Perryman, a former Miami Hurricane, has been productive since being acquired for essentially nothing before the 2021 season from Carolina; the trade was a sixth-rounder for Perryman and a seventh rounder. He had 148 tackles in 15 games in 2021.
The Steelers declined Bush’s fifth year option for 2023, but he remained a starter this season.
From that group, Pro Football Focus rated David the third-best linebacker in football this past season, Edmunds seventh, Pratt ninth, Long 13th, Perryman 18th, Okereke and Al-Shaair tied for 21st, Vander Esch 23rd, Alexander 44th, Bush 53rd, Anzalone 57th of 81.
Among Dolphins linebackers, PFF rated Baker 17th, Riley 57th and Roberts 63rd.
Edge players and outside linebackers are not included in PFF’s linebacker rankings.
One keen talent evaluator from another team mentioned he likes Edwards, Long, Vander Esch and Al-Shaair.
What about Edmunds? That evaluator questioned his coverage ability and said pairing him with Baker wouldn’t be a wise allocation of financial resources.
The Dolphins value Baker’s reliability and durability, but he doesn’t make many splash plays and his metrics in coverage have never been as good as hoped.
Among notable free agents coming off 2022 injuries, there’s also Anthony Walker, the former Miami Pace High player who had 113 tackles for Cleveland in 13 games in 2021 but played in only three games this past season because of a torn quadriceps sustained in week 3.
And there’s Deion Jones, who started for Atlanta in 2019 through 2021 but spent the early part of last season on injured reserve and started only five of 11 appearances for Cleveland this season. He had 44 tackles, down from 137 a year ago for the Falcons.
The other impending unrestricted free agent linebackers: Carolina part-time starter Corey Littleton, former Dolphins Kyle Van Noy (Chargers) and Raekwon McMillan (Patriots), Las Vegas’ Jayon Brown (rated 77th by PFF) and Tennessee’s Dylan Cole (68th by PFF).
The question for Chris Grier is whether it’s worth trying to spend big money on someone to pair with Baker, spend decent money on someone to replace Roberts, replace Baker with a pricey player or stick another year with the Baker, Roberts, Riley troika and hope Tindall can push for playing time. Option four seems least likely.
Keep in mind that NFL people often make the case against spending big money at inside linebacker.