Miami Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso enjoyed a career resurgence in 2016, starting 15 games while manning the middle for the Miami defense. He wasn’t as dominant as he was during a tremendous rookie season (159 tackles and four interceptions) in 2013, but Alonso was the primary finisher and leading tackler on a team that sorely lacked able-bodied talent due to injuries. With star Safety Reshad Jones missing most of the season, Alonso took on a leadership role with the team during his first year and was rewarded with a three-year, $29 million extension this spring.
Alonso possesses a level of speed unmatched on the second level of the unit, even after fresh reinforcements were introduced to the roster this spring. That speed figures to be a bigger factor than last year, thanks to Miami’s additions at linebacker. With Raekwon McMillan and Lawrence Timmons in the fray, Alonso will be allowed to step away from the middle at times and get reps at the weak-side linebacker (or “WILL”) in 2017. How big a deal is that for Alonso and his skill set? It’s huge.
It’s an interesting dynamic, given that Alonso has reportedly expressed a desire to stay in the middle of the defense, but the Dolphins have reportedly flirted with the idea of playing him in space both during the 2016 season and this offseason, according to the Miami Herald’s Armando Salguero in that same article linked above.
At the very least, Miami will have the ability to be flexible with Alonso, given certain game situations and personnel groupings. Alonso has struggled with health for a majority of his NFL career. He suffered a torn ACL in 2014 and was hampered with lingering left knee injuries throughout his return season in 2015 with the Philadelphia Eagles. With Alonso holding down the middle of the defense, he is more susceptible to heavy body shots from interior offensive linemen.
The Dolphins’ scheme further exacerbates the issue, because their wide-nine style defense doesn’t put as great of a priority on protecting linebackers as other schemes. Instead, Miami’s defensive line focuses on a lot of penetration. The end result? Miami’s middle linebacker can be prone to playing head to head against blockers at the point of attack.
It’s a tall task for a player that has consistently made his living beating linemen to the spot with his burst and processing skills.
DeCastro and Gilbert root out Suh on the deuce block and displace him five yards downfield in Kiko Alonso's lap. pic.twitter.com/Z4ytCVg7Pf
— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) January 11, 2017
It is worth nothing that Alonso did require an offseason procedure to repair his thumb and was hindered by the cast on his hand in the Dolphins’ playoff loss to Pittsburgh. A more physically stout and powerful linebacker could offer the Dolphins more in terms of attacking these plays and stuffing the crease at the point of attack. With Lawrence Timmons and Raekwon McMillan near the top of the depth chart, Miami will have options to rotate in and challenge these types of plays.
The end product, even if Alonso prefers to man the middle full time, will be a player who figures to spend more time in space during the 2017 season. There is a notable trend in the NFL of prioritizing linebackers with speed. The Dolphins should consider themselves lucky to have landed one (and a starting cornerback in Byron Maxwell) at the expense of swapping picks with the Philadelphia Eagles prior to the 2016 NFL Draft. The team clearly knows what it has in Alonso, given the extension the parties have agreed to.
The Dolphins’ efforts to re-stock the linebacker group have been sorely needed for a number of seasons. Alonso’s year provided the most tackles a Dolphin linebacker has produced since 2013. His midseason pick-six against the Chargers was probably the biggest play a Dolphin linebacker has made in several years. The Oregon product is undoubtedly a skilled defender. It’s a promising omen for the duration of his contract that Alonso finally felt like himself in 2016 after his previously mentioned ACL tear.
With more experience and brute strength in the unit, Miami is poised to utilize Alonso to the best of his ability. Those selective opportunities can springboard him from a solid contributor and leading tackler in 2016 into a top-end producing linebacker. His larger presence as a blitz player, pass defender and chase-down tackler is amplified in space. Expect improved play both in the middle and on the edges of Miami’s defense in 2017. A lot of that will center around the usage of Alonso.
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