What Dolphins are getting with LB Long: lots of positives but one concern from his coach

Christopher Hanewinckel/Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Some notes on what the Dolphins are getting with new linebacker David Long:

Vic Fangio’s defense needs linebackers who can defend the pass without being liabilities against the run, and Long fits the bill.

He has two interceptions each of the past two seasons. He allowed an 87 passer rating in his coverage area last season — compared with 107.8 against Jerome Baker, 108.1 against Duke Riley and 112.8 against Elandon Roberts, who were the Dolphins’ top three inside linebackers last season.

In 2021, Long permitted an 86.1 passer rating in his coverage area, on par with his 87 last season.

But there’s a caveat with that: The primary reason for Long’s strong passer rating metrics is this: He had four interceptions while not allowing any touchdown passes during the past two years.

His completion percentage against is high: During the past two seasons, Long has permitted 89 of 109 passes to be caught (81.6 percent completion rate) for 920 yards, which is 10.3 yards per catch. But he picked off four of the 20 passes that were not completed against him, and he basically doesn’t give up touchdowns in the passing game.

In 158 passes thrown against him in his four-year career, he has permitted just one touchdown in his coverage area (in 2020).

And here’s another reason that’s important: Last season, Dolphins linebackers allowed a league-high 11 touchdowns and yielded the fourth-highest completion percentage (79.4) in coverage, per Next Gen Stats.

Riley re-signed with the Dolphins, and his speed on defense and special teams skills are assets. Roberts remains unsigned. Baker remains under contract; his $8.4 million salary for 2023 becomes guaranteed on Friday.

Pro Football Focus ranked Long 14th among all linebackers last season, including fifth against the run.

Per Next Gen Stats, Long tackled opposing ball carriers for a loss or no gain on 6.6 percent of his run defense snaps last season, the second-highest run stuff rate in the NFL (minimum 200 snaps against the run).

So the Dolphins aren’t sacrificing run defense for pass coverage.

The question is Long’s health. Hamstring injuries sidelined him for seven games in 2021 (the opener and six in November/December) and kept him out for the final five games in 2022.

Titans coach Mike Vrabel said after last season that he wants Long to find a way to avoid soft tissue injuries. Ultimately, the Titans didn’t re-sign him.

Vrabel’s exact comment: “We look at those soft tissues of repeat offenders… It doesn’t take too hard to look and see Kristian Fulton and David Long. I mean they are repeat offenders with soft tissue injuries. They have to figure out a way to train and act like… The game is played at high speed. Kevin Byard hasn’t pulled a hamstring since he’s been playing here.”

But Vrabel also said of Long last year: “David is a passionate player. I really appreciate that about him. I feel like our relationship has gotten better each and every year. We’re trying to harness some of that passion that he has. It’s just been good to see him grow in our scheme and understand what’s going on.”

Long has no career sacks, but PFF rated him sixth best as a pass rusher among all linebackers in 2022 and eighth in 2021 (not counting edge players). So how can this be?

Because Long gets pressure on a high percentage of his limited pass rushing chances.

Last season, he rushed the quarterback just 47 times but had 18 pressures. He went into coverage on 477 passing plays.

In 2021, he rushed the quarterback just 53 times but had 10 pressures on those 53 rushes. He went into coverage on 490 passing plays.

For the games when he was available, Long played 94 and 89 percent of the Titans’ defensive snaps the past two seasons. But he missed the 12 games during those two seasons with hamstring injuries.

Titans defensive coordinator Shane Bowen said last June that he was “really pleased” with Long. “Dave has done a great job. He has taken that position, that role, by the horns and he’s running with it. We have young guys in that room and he is really a solidifying force in that room. He’s trying to become more vocal.”

Warren Sharp, who’s very good with football analytics, called Long a “sneaky underrated signing” who “changed the perspective of Titans D when he missed games.”

Sharp notes the Titans were 20-7 when he was healthy but 3-10 when he was injured. He adds that getting him for $5.5 million per year “if healthy is robbery.”

Long started no games (and played 58 snaps on defense) as a rookie in 2019, and started five games in 2020, nine in 2021 and 12 in 2022. His grades have risen every season, per PFF.

Long doesn’t have a career sack but has two forced fumbles.

Fox analyst Emmanuel Acho: “Sneaky huge signing for the Miami Dolphins, helps a much needed void at the backer position. Vic Fangio getting all the tools he needs to solidify the defense.”

ESPN’s Mina Kimes said Long was a “steal” at two years and $11 million.

The Dolphins showed some interest in Lavonte David and Denzel Perryman before opting for Long.

Tennessee drafted him in the sixth round out of West Virginia in 2019. He played high school football in Cincinnati.

He overcame a frightening accident. When he was 7, he was on the back of a bike being pedaled by his older brother when he was hit by a car in what was reported to be an inadvertent accident. He was treated at the hospital with head and arm injuries. …

David’s father, David Sr., is a former professional boxer who went 12-5-2 as a heavyweight.