Versatility Is Key At Linebacker

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The selection of Raekwon McMillan in the second round of the 2017 NFL draft seemingly gave the Dolphins a surplus of middle/inside linebackers.

After all, Kiko Alonso is back after an impressive performance at that position in his first year in Miami and then the Dolphins added free agent Lawrence Timmons, who spent a decade playing inside linebacker in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 system.

But new Defensive Coordinator Matt Burke said Saturday it might be more accurate to describe McMillan, Alonso and Timmons simply as linebackers — without worrying so much about the outside or inside designations.

In fact, Burke said he wasn’t even sure McMillan would get his first practice time at inside linebacker.

“Personally, I believe — and I think the organization believes — it’s important to have multi-talented players,” Burke said. “Everyone talks about what New England does with tight ends and running backs that are receivers and those sort of things. Defensively, one of our philosophies is the same, having guys that are interchangeable, that can play multiple positions, that can match up in different areas week to week.

“I look at them as linebackers. I don’t look at, say, Kiko, I don’t say he’s an inside linebacker, he’s an outside linebacker. The way we play our defense, we play with three off-the-ball guys. Week to week, there’s different challenges of the Sam (strongside linebacker) is going to match up with this guy one time or the inside linebacker is going to be asked to do this. Kiko is a good football player and we’re going to utilize his skill set. Same thing Adam (Gase) has always talked about. We’re going to put our best players in the best position to be successful and to help us win. I don’t look at any of them specifically as an inside linebacker, as an outside linebacker. I think they all have diverse skill sets and we’re going to utilize them week to week the best way possible to help us win.”

This is how much Burke believes in his linebackers being versatile and developing multiple skill sets: he said there could be times he’ll utilize his outside linebackers on a specific side regardless of where the tight end lines up instead of the traditional strongside and weakside linebacker deployment.

“Probably one of the better years when I was in Detroit, DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant were outside linebacker and (Stephen) Tulloch was in the middle, and they just played right and left,” Burke said. “I’ve done that. I’ve flipped. I’ve done stuff where you put one guy behind the 3-technique (defensive tackle) all the time to protect him.

“There’s a lot of ways to deploy your linebackers and utilize them. I’ve literally done all of them in my career. It’s a matter for us of going through the process and finding out, at the end of the day, this is the best way … Raekwon, Kiko, Lawrence, Mike Hull, Neville (Hewitt), all these guys that have played for us that are going to be successful and what’s going to help us win. That may be different week to week. I don’t know, the challenges are varied every week. That’s a unique position.”

By getting his linebackers ready to play at any spot behind the defensive line also will help protect the defense in case of injuries. The Dolphins had their share of those at linebacker last year as opening-day starter Koa Misi was limited to three games and Jelani Jenkins battled injuries throughout the season.

“Our plan for all those guys is to literally cross-train them and try to get the most and find out what the best fit is,” Burke said. “And it may be week to week. I don’t know. It may be this week Raekwon fits better for us in this position and Lawrence is out here. Or maybe there’s a better option to match Kiko up with somebody that we feel good about. We want to get the best matchups and have the ability to move guys around and also if an injury happens we can slide a guy in and it’s not a big loss or it throws everything off when somebody all of a sudden gets a high ankle sprain and has to miss a couple of weeks.”

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