Dolphins fans woke up to some surprising news on Saturday. First, it was floated out Miami was shopping starting LB Raekwon McMillan then about an hour or so later it was reported McMillian and 5th round pick had been sent to Las Vegas for a fourth-rounder.
This trade might be innocuous to some but there is actually a ton to explore here. First, why trade a productive starting LB? Second, what does this tell about Miami’s scheme and how do they plan to replace him?
Let’s dive in and see if we can answer some of these questions.
Why did Miami trade McMillan?
The simple answer to this question and the one most Dolphins fans seem to be running with is McMillan wasn’t a scheme fit. I think in a broad sense that is true but just simply saying that lacks some context.
If you look at Patriots’ style defenses across the league you will see there is a spot for a downhill physical run defender at the LB spot. This was McMillan’s job last season, and he was damn good at it. He ranked towards the top of the league in run defending grades last season, according to PFF. He played in the Dont’a Hightower role which isn’t just going to vanish now that he’s gone.
Now where McMillan didn’t fit the Dolphins scheme is the versatility category. This team puts an absolute premium on versatility, perhaps more than any other team in the league. While McMillan filled his role well, he provided the coaching staff with no versatility. He can’t do anything besides stop the run which limited the different kinds of defense packages they could call.
Basically, what it came down to is the Dolphins valued flexibility in play-calling over a run-stopping specialist.
The other factor to consider here is McMillan’s contract situation. He’s due for a new one next season, and clearly, Miami had already made up their mind he wasn’t apart of their future. I applaud the front office for working quickly to move him once they came to that decision.
A common mistake front office’s across sports make is holding on to players too long even after they have figured out they aren’t apart of the future. Miami is probably the most proactive front office in the league in this area. The Minkah Fitzpatrick and Laremy Tunsil trades are also a good example of this. Once they figure out they are going in a different direction they move quickly to get maximum trade value.
You can argue they should have kept those players but their process is good which is more than you can say for a lot of other teams.
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What does the defense look like now?
This is an extremely difficult thing to predict. Firstly, training camp information has been limited this season to a degree. Typically, we would have a better idea of formations and groupings Miami has been using which would better inform this answer. Second, with Miami’s hyper-focus on versatile players, it means they will most likely be extremely multiple on defense. You can’t just plug a name in and say he’s going to replace McMillan and do everything the same.
If the Dolphins wanted someone to exactly replace what McMillan did they would’ve kept him. Trading him gives the team more flexibility and an additional draft asset.
My best guess is Miami will run with Jerome Baker and Kyle Van Noy at inside LB and put either 6 or 7 DBs on the field. I hope this is the direction Miami goes because the secondary is a strength of this team.
Miami could pair Baker and Van Noy with Byron Jones, Xavien Howard, Nik Needham, and Noah Igbinoghene at corner with Bobby McCain and Eric Rowe at safety. This would be Miami’s best chance to defend the pass, in my opinion, which takes paramount in today’s NFL.
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Now Dolphins’ fans on Twitter have been quick to remind me Kamu Gruiger-Hill, Elandon Roberts, and Sam Eguavoen will probably get work as well. I think their opportunity to see the field could come from Van Noy playing some reps as an on-ball pass rusher. I don’t know how many reps that will consist of, but if he’s moving to EDGE that leaves an LB spot open.
Miami could also take a DB off the field and play a more traditional 3 LB look. This will depend on how many receivers the other team is rolling with of course.
It has been widely noted McMillan struggled to defend the pass. There is no debate with that. He was the worst pass defending LB on the team but that doesn’t mean the other LBs in the room are good at it.
In fact, I would argue Miami still doesn’t have a good pass defending LB. Grugier-Hill, Van Noy, and Baker are better than McMillian, however, that isn’t exactly a high bar to reach.
I just want to caution Dolphins fans on being too high on Roberts and Gruiger-Hill. They are valuable role players but they’ve spent most of their time playing special teams for a reason.
So yes, moving McMillan does allow for Miami to have more flexibility, but they didn’t exactly upgrade. This is why my preferred primary look for Miami this season includes 6 DBs on the field. None of the LBs fill me with much confidence regardless of what reports coming out of training camp are.