Jelani Jenkins, Dolphins Savior

The Miami Dolphins (6-4) visit the Denver Broncos (7-3) on Sunday in a battle for AFC playoff positioning. This season, the key to the Dolphins success has been their excellent defense. One of the most important pieces to the puzzle has been the emergence of Jelani Jenkins.

In the first game of the 2014 season, the Miami Dolphins earned a victory over the New England Patriots, but suffered what should have been a major setback when starting weak side linebacker Dannell Ellerbe was lost for the season to a hip injury. Already thin at the LB position, the Dolphins were faced with a decision: they could attempt to fill Ellerbe’s void with a veteran signing, or they could look for a replacement internally. Miami gave the opportunity to second-year player Jelani Jenkins, who has taken full advantage of his playing time this season and has quietly blossomed into one of the top outside linebackers in all of football this season.

For several seasons, Miami had issues trying to cover the athletic pass-catching tight ends that have become so prevalent in modern football. In 2013, Ellerbe signed as a free agent from Baltimore and spent his first year with the Dolphins trying to play middle linebacker in Miami’s 4-3 defense ‒ a position he had never played professionally ‒ and predictably struggled through most of the campaign.

Another new face last season, LB Philip Wheeler arrived from the Raiders to sign a 5-year, $26 million deal. He and Ellerbe had been brought in to replace veterans Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, and the younger, more athletic players were expected to help with Miami’s obvious need with pass coverage out of their linebacking unit.

The results in 2013 were disastrous. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, Miami’s defense against TEs went from 13th in the league in 2012 (-3.3%) to 29th in 2013 (24.5%). Per Pro Football Focus, in 2012 Dansby graded** at 9.5 overall and Burnett 13.8, but in 2013 Ellerbe received a grade** of -13.5 and Wheeler a -19.5, with the latter’s pass coverage** earning him a -8.2. The Dolphins’ plan had backfired badly.

Heading into 2014, the coaching staff decided to shuffle the linebackers around, shifting Ellerbe back outside to his natural position and moving Koa Misi inside. With Ellerbe lost just one week into the season, Miami was left with a large void in what was arguably their weakest unit the previous season.

The Dolphins turned to Jenkins, a fourth-round draft pick out of the University of Florida in 2013. Jenkins played sparingly his rookie season, contributing mostly on special teams and as a specialist on obvious passing downs. Of the 127 defensive snaps he played in 2013, Jenkins dropped into coverage on 83 plays**, which is 65%. His best game in 2013 was Miami’s Week 15 victory over the Patriots, in which he graded out at 1.6** while contributing 2 tackles and 1 quarterback hurry. No one knew exactly what to expect from Jenkins. Coming out of Florida, analysts viewed him as an athletic LB that could excel in pass coverage but would struggle against the run, lacking ideal size and strength for the OLB position. What the Dolphins may have uncovered is a-long term solution for their LB woes.

This season, Miami has the league’s top rated pass defense with a -15.1% DVOA*. While Miami ranked 29th against TEs last season, they are presently tops in the league with a -43.2% DVOA*, a massive improvement from last season. Jenkins’ pass coverage is presently graded a 6.3, the best rating on the team and the second highest NFL grade** among 4-3 OLBs, trailing only Thomas Davis of the Carolina Panthers. Not only has he excelled in pass coverage, Jenkins has held up well against the run with a grade of 4.2, good for 12th in the league, That makes his 12.5 overall rating** the 4th-highest this season among 4-3 OLBs. To get that type of production from a relatively unknown entity has been a tremendous boost to Miami’s entire defense.

The emergence of Jenkins has allowed the Dolphins to let Wheeler do what he’s best at: rush the quarterback and stop the run as a strong-side LB. Wheeler presently holds a 1.2 rating as a pass rusher (9th in the NFL**), and rates 5.4 as a defender against the running game (8th in the league**). His current 6.5 overall rating is 9th-best among 4-3 OLBs. Wheeler has also played in just 37.4% of Miami’s defensive snaps, which shows that the coaching staff is using him to his strengths as a situational pass rusher and run stuffer and not exposing him as a liability in coverage.

Jenkins’ impact has remedied what could have been a tremendous blow to the Miami defense and LB corps. At only 22 years old, Jenkins could be a keystone that the Dolphins can build around for years to come.

Where noted, premium content provided by Football Outsiders (*) and Pro Football Focus (**).

Follow Joshua on Twitter @joshu_wa.

Joshua Soden has covered the emerging Jelani Jenkins, the fully recovered Rob Gronkowski, and previews the big games.

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