With the 2022 NFL season fast approaching, the South Florida Sun Sentinel takes a look at 10 storylines to watch for in a 10-part series ahead of the Miami Dolphins’ first day of training camp, which is set for Wednesday.
With everything the Miami Dolphins added to their roster in the 2022 offseason, maybe the one key item on the wish list that wasn’t checked off was veteran inside linebacker.
Sure, one could argue a veteran center is right there on that list, but the Dolphins are giving Connor Williams, a guard through his first four seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, a chance to be the team’s starting center.
The Dolphins did eventually address inside linebacker by selecting Georgia’s Channing Tindall with a late third-round pick, No. 102 overall, Miami’s first selection of this year’s draft. Tindall, however, while possessing the natural speed and athleticism Miami could use at the position, may need time to build strength for the NFL level and to learn defensive coordinator Josh Boyer’s system.
Instead of going for top free-agent linebackers Bobby Wagner, Myles Jack or Jordan Hicks, the Dolphins opted for continuity in the unit. Elandon Roberts, Duke Riley and Sam Eguavoen were all brought back in free agency to complement defensive leader Jerome Baker in the linebacker corps.
A veteran upgrade in that group would’ve been ideal, but it spoke to the Dolphins’ desire to maintain — not only the core — but virtually the entire 2021 defense after its hot second half carried the team from a 1-7 start to seven straight wins and victories in eight of the last nine to finish 9-8.
Baker has led the Dolphins in tackles for three years running, although his 92 tackles in 2021 marked the first time he was below triple digits since his rookie campaign. He runs sideline to sideline well with his 6-foot-2, 225-pound frame but could always stand to play more physical inside against the run and fix some occasional lapses in coverage.
Baker has also been a menace when sent in on the blitz, registering 5 1/2 sacks in 2021. Instances where Roberts and Riley were lined up together inside allowed Baker to flash his versatility and slide out to play outside linebacker. It was a huge adjustment that allowed the Dolphins defense to flummox the Baltimore Ravens and quarterback Lamar Jackson in a key November upset win last year.
Roberts, a team captain each of his two seasons in Miami, is that physical presence in the middle and a tackling machine that racked up 83 tackles in 2021. A Brian Flores guy going back to days in New England, Roberts stayed in Miami this offseason despite Flores’ firing as Boyer and linebackers coach Anthony Campanile also remained.
Riley’s ability to contribute in the rotation, discovered in the Oct. 31 loss at Buffalo where Baker was held out, paid off in various matchups over the Dolphins’ second-half streak.
Eguavoen and Calvin Munson will be among other linebackers competing for a roster spot in training camp after Eguavoen made the team last year and played in all 17 games, mostly on special teams. He can play inside or outside.
Outside linebacker Brennan Scarlett was also re-signed in the offseason, and he worked in at defensive end during the team’s offseason workout program in a potential move that could unlock more positional versatility in Miami’s defensive front.
Miami added more depth on the edge, plus a veteran presence who has three Pro Bowls to his name, in Melvin Ingram. With him, Jaelan Phillips, Andrew Van Ginkel, Baker getting reps on the outside and Scarlett or Eguavoen able to take snaps at the position, the Dolphins have plenty there after also adding California’s Cameron Goode as a seventh-round pick in the past draft.
Inside, the Dolphins decided to remain constant when an upgrade could’ve been in the works. Whether it leads to play comparable to the second half, or first half of last season, will go a long way in determining if it was a worthwhile commitment or if Miami will need a rapid progression from the Tindall or be looking for help at the position again soon.
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