Miami Dolphins: What the loss of Raekwon McMillan means

Miami Dolphins linebacker Raekwon McMillan rolls on the turf after being injured against the Atlanta Falcons at Hard Rock Stadium. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

The Dolphins have at least three players not named Raekwon McMillan who are capable of playing middle linebacker in 2017.

That the Dolphins had planned to line up with the McMillan, a 20-year-old rookie from Ohio State, in the middle of the defense in 2017 tells you how they felt about his talent.

The Dolphins felt McMillan was a sure-tacker, intelligent, mature and poised.

They trusted McMillan to wear the defensive headset and call plays in Miami’s preseason opener against Atlanta on Thursday night.

But shockingly, McMillan wasn’t able to take one signal from defensive coordinator Matt Burke, who was calling the plays from the field.

McMillan was injured on the very first play of his NFL life, a punt coverage of all things.

And now he is lost for the season. A devastating blow.

Dolphins coach Adam Gase had said McMillan was supposed to play one half. He lasted one play.

Miami needed badly to improve its rush defense, which was porous last season.

The idea of lining up with McMillan, Kiko Alonso and Lawrence Timmons, three players who have spent most of their football-playing lives in the middle of the field, was a plan designed to stop all those long runs.

Burke, a Dartmouth-educated man, must go back to the drawing board and devise a new plan.

Here is a more positive way to look at the situation.

As was the case with Ryan Tannehill’s knee injury, there is time to make the adjustments necessary to compete this season. It’s better that this happened now than in the first game of the season.

For McMillan, as disappointing as this is, he can return next season as a 21-year-old middle linebacker, fresh off an NFL medical redshirt, with the knowledge of Miami’s defense and the NFL lifestyle.

More often than not last season, the Dolphins took the field with two linebackers, not three.

And so that’s a large part of the reason McMillan was out there on special teams to begin with. McMillan had impressed the coaches with his effort and skill in special teams drills.

But he also wasn’t going to be on the field when only Alonso and Timmons were out there.

When McMillan went down, Mike Hull, a formerly undrafted linebacker from Penn State, took his place. Hull has a place on this team.

Hull is one of the Dolphins’ best special teams players. And he is a gritty, determined, hard-nosed tackler.

But he surely doesn’t have terrific speed.

And it is possible the Dolphins could use Alonso or Timmons on the inside with Neville Hewitt, who showed some promising flashes last season, as a sideline-to-sideline chaser on the outside.

Veteran defensive end William Hayes showed why he should be an underrated addition in the run game on Thursday night.

Coaches believe veteran defensive ends Cameron Wake and Andre Branch are better prepared to set an edge in their second season in the Wide Nine defensive scheme.

And they believe that rookie pass-rusher Charles Harris can get there. Even if it takes some time.

It’s hard for Miami coach Adam Gase, surely, to stomach the loss of a player who was to be counted on to enter the game, especially in moments where the defense is bending (or breaking) against the run.

It’s hard for Gase and Burke to deal with the various body blows the team has taken already, including the loss of both the offensive (Ryan Tannehill) and defensive players (McMillan) expected to be hearing their voices during the upcoming NFL season.

But the Dolphins have more than four weeks to react and adjust.

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