The Miami Dolphins have a fantastic cornerback room, but career regression can be unpredictable.
Miami’s top two corners — Xavien Howard and Byron Jones — are inching closer to the dreaded 30th birthday.
Cornerback depth is always important, but even more so in a Brian Flores defense. In Flores’ system, corners need to be comfortable in man coverage without having safety help over the top. One weak link can wreck an entire game plan.
Luckily for Dolphins fans, Chris Grier and Flores understand the importance of the position and have invested heavily. Grier caught a lot of flack for his final first-round selection in the 2020 draft when selecting Noah Igbinoghene. I also received criticism for selecting a developmental corner in my final mock draft for 2021.
You can never have enough depth.
Most have already accepted this fact, but the NFL is a passing league. There were a grand total of three teams that ran the ball more than they passed it in 2020: New England, Baltimore, and Tennessee. The two teams in the Super Bowl — Kansas City and Tampa Bay –both passed the ball on 62% of their offensive plays.
So what does this mean for team-building purposes? Well, any position important to passing or pass defense is extremely sought after. That means quarterbacks, receivers, offensive tackles, edge rushers, and of course, corners. Those positions made up twenty-five of the first thirty-two selections in the 2021 NFL draft.
Teams are also deeper than ever at wide receiver. For an easy example, look at the Miami Dolphins. DeVante Parker, Will Fuller, Jaylen Waddle, Preston Williams, Lynn Bowden Jr., and Albert Wilson are all above-average receiving options. That means teams need enough reliable corners to avoid being exposed on four or five wide sets.
Why does Miami need top corners?
Cornerbacks are an important position for every team, but especially so for Miami. The Dolphins love to dial-up aggressive and exotic blitzes. They had the second-highest blitz rate of any team in 2020 and that usually means safety help will be scarce. On a lot of plays, the outside corner is going to be by himself.
That means Miami better have corners that can stick with their guy. If a corner is routinely allowing receivers to get separation, they’re going to be burned on these blitzes, and there’s no safety to cover up their mistake. A good offensive coordinator will identify and exploit any mismatch they can find. There’s nowhere to hide on an NFL football field.
Miami’s current cornerback situation. How did they get here?
The good news is that Miami has loaded up on talented and athletically gifted corners. They’ve also added players in a number of different ways. Howard and Igbinoghene were both early draft selections, Jones, Justin Coleman, and Jason McCourty were free-agent additions and Nik Needham, Trill Williams, and Jamal Perry were undrafted free agents that found their way onto Miami’s roster.
Howard arrived before Flores, but since that time, Miami has targeted corners that are high level athletes. Jones, Coleman, Igbinoghene, McCourty, and Williams are all insanely athletic players. Something that seems to be developing into a trend.
Howard is such an interesting player to study. He doesn’t have elite physical traits like other top corners, but has some of the best instincts at the position that I’ve ever seen. His ball skills are also some of the best for any defensive back in the league.
This unique skill set has led Howard to put up elite production over the span of his career in Miami. He’s led the NFL in interceptions twice — 2018 and 2020 — and his career passer rating when targeted is a meager 66.7. Any way you cut it, Howard is a special player at the position. Below, you can see what happens when teams try to pick on Howard (spoiler alert, it doesn’t go well).
That raises the question, what concerns are present for Howard? Firstly, he’s battled injuries for much of his career. He started all sixteen games in 2020, but it was only his second time doing that in five seasons. He missed fifteen games due to injury between 2018 and 2019.
There’s also the issue of his current contract. Howard signed a new deal back in 2019 that reset the cornerback market and insured he would be with the team through 2024. Since, new contracts have been signed and Howard is now not even the highest-paid corner on his own team. Apparently, this doesn’t sit well with Howard, and he’s reportedly looking for a new deal.
Jones had been one of the more consistently effective corners in the NFL since switching from free safety in 2018. When Miami signed him last offseason, they made him the highest-paid corner in the NFL. Jones had lofty expectation coming into the 2020 season, and he didn’t quite live up to them.
We have to ask ourselves, why didn’t he live up to those expectations? Well, the main thing to highlight are the differences between Miami’s and Dallas’s defensive schemes and the challenges that come with that transition.
In 2020, Miami ran Cover 0, Cover 1, and Cover 2-Man for 41.65% of their defensive snaps. These are the main man coverage defenses in the NFL and Miami ranked towards the top of the league in that category. In Jones’s final year in Dallas, they ran these same plays for just 27.1% of their defensive calls. Essentially, Miami runs man coverage at a much higher rate than Dallas ever did while Jones was there.
Note: SIS Data Hub Pro is an awesome resource, but is behind a paywall.
Some people may feel like a good corner can succeed in any scheme, but the reality is that playing zone and man require two very different skill sets. There are a ton of corners that thrive in one and struggle in the other. Most of Jones’s biggest mistakes came when he was in man coverage this past season. I believe he can make that transition, but these things take time.
As stated before, Miami loves to blitz under Brian Flores. In 2020, Miami blitzed on 40.8% of their plays. In 2019, the Cowboys defense blitzed on 23.3% of their defensive snaps. This means less safety help and even less help inside typically. Jones went from a defense that didn’t blitz a ton and primarily ran zone concepts to an extremely aggressive, man-heavy scheme. It was always going to be a difficult adjustment.
Why can Jones improve this year?
There are a number of reasons, but first and foremost, Jones is a really good player. He’s freakishly athletic and has a ton of high-level experience in the NFL. Also, defensive back success is extremely volatile. A mistake or blown coverage can come on a ten-yard out or on a 70 yard go route. They’re both mistakes, but one will negatively impact a season and the other won’t. In other words, he was a bit unlucky in 2020 and that should creep back towards average in 2021.
Slot corner was a position that I felt Miami needed to address this offseason and Coleman could be a really solid addition. In 2018, Coleman was considered one of the best slot corners in the NFL and was awarded with a four-year, $36 million contract. Like most players in Detroit the past few seasons, he did not play incredibly well and was let go from the team prior to the expiration of that deal.
Coleman offers a lot of experience at the position and has a really impressive athletic profile. He struggled in 2020, but was hampered by a hamstring injury and played for a defensive coach that made Jeff Okudah –the consensus number one corner from the 2020 draft — look like a UDFA. In the video below, we can see the kind of high upside Coleman can produce. I think he can hold down that slot corner spot for the 2021 season and should be an upgrade.
Fans are extremely split on Igbinoghene — almost as bad as they are on Tua. There were a lot of upset fans when they selected him in the first round of last year’s draft, as corner seemed like one of their deeper position groups. I for one, loved the move. I don’t think they drafted Igbo with the intention of starting him immediately. This was a forward-looking move and Miami is expecting him to take over for Howard or Jones in the near future.
There are also a lot of things to love about his game. First off, Igbinoghene is an impressive athlete. He’s the son of two former Nigerian Olympians, and he himself had an impressive career in track and field, but on the football field is where he has really set himself apart. Igbinoghene made the switch from wide receiver to corner for his 2018 season at Auburn and hasn’t looked back.
His instincts at the position and ball skills aren’t perfect, but he was able to match and mirror some of the absolute best college wide receivers. Below, we can see him lock up Ja’Marr Chase and he also got the best of other highly drafted SEC receivers-most notably DeVonta Smith. With more experience, his instincts at corner are sure to improve.
Igbo wasn’t ready to start in 2020
May will have a hard time getting the image of his first couple games in Miami out of their head. The reality is that he just wasn’t ready to step up against top-flight NFL receivers. He’s relatively new to the position and Stefon Diggs is an experienced, all-pro receiver that expectedly took the rookie to task. There will be learning experiences for the young player, but don’t let that sour you on his future prospects. At just 21 years of age, Igbinoghene has plenty of time to figure it out.
Needham plays with so much effort and he was one of the few bright spots from that 2019 season. I think he will always be valuable depth, but I’m not sure that he’ll develop into a top-tier starting option. Needham had a concerning pro day and those concerns have shown up on the football field. He may lack the speed and explosiveness to be an elite corner in the NFL.
You don’t have to be a world-class athlete to be good at corner, but you need to meet a minimum threshold. If you don’t have the make-up speed to catch receivers after they get separation, you better be able to stick with them, and Needham just didn’t do that enough in 2020.
There’s also a chance that bringing in more competition will pull the best out of Needham. Sophomore slumps can be a real thing and we shouldn’t be giving up on him. Something that is worth noting is that Needham played on the outside more in 2019 and had much more success than when they bumped him inside to slot corner for 2020. Maybe he’ll figure out the slot and improve for 2021. Either way, he’s a valuable addition to the roster and I look forward to seeing what he can accomplish.
McCourty was a late addition this offseason and is admittedly a bit of a head-scratcher. Some see it as a way to fill the leadership vacuum that was created by cutting Bobby McCain, and that could make some sense. I think McCourty is just someone that Flores is familiar with and knows that he can provide depth at a number of positions.
Early in McCourty’s career he strictly played outside corner but since signing with New England in 2018, he’s been moved around quite a bit. He can step in at boundary, slot, and in a pinch either safety spot. Back in 2009, he had a pretty insane pro-day. Posting a 4.3 40-yard dash time, 6.67 3-cone, and 36.5 vertical jump. At 33, he may not still be that guy, but he could be somewhere close.
I do also think he may be competing for starting reps at boundary, slot, or safety. It would be a PR nightmare to have him start at the boundary, but Flores will go with whoever gives Miami the best chance to win. Per PFF, he’s graded out just as well as Jones throughout his career. The question at this point is if he can still play at that level. It’s a short and inexpensive deal, so why not bring him into camp and find out?
Depth and developmental players
Williams was claimed off waivers when the New Orleans Saints parted with the undrafted free agent following a failed physical. This was a classic example of the media and non-team-affiliated scouts having a higher grade on Williams than much of the NFL did. The Draft Network had Trill ranked as the 90th best prospect and PFF had him pegged as the 138th best. The Draft Network even had him ranked ahead of Miami’s third-round selection, tight end Hunter Long.
Had Miami selected Williams with their fifth-round pick instead of trading it to Pittsburgh, the move would have been universally praised. In other words, they are incredibly fortunate to acquire him in this manner.
Trill had a unique college career. He contributed right away as a freshman and showed some flashes at both boundary and slot corner. The past two seasons he played primarily as a slot corner and had mixed results. at 6-foot-2, 200-pounds, Williams has the prototypical length of an outside corner. He also had some impressive testing numbers at his pro day, posting a 4.42 40-yard dash time and 20 bench reps.
The size and athleticism that Williams possesses can’t be coached and they aren’t easy to find. If he can clean up some technical issues and improve at the catch point, he could develop into a special player down the road. I wouldn’t expect an immediate impact from him, but this move could pay dividends in the future.
Perry was an undrafted player out of Iowa State in 2017. He first played in an NFL game for the Dolphins during the 2019 season. This past season, he appeared in a reserve role for the Dolphins at slot corner, free safety, and strong safety.
Perry does provide some positional versatility, but one has to question what kind of upside is there. He’s already 26-years-old, and isn’t likely to take any major step forward. That could lead to Perry being the odd man out in a DB room packed with corners. If he sticks with the team, it will be due to his familiarity with the scheme and ability to provide competent depth at multiple positions.
What makes Miami’s defense so effective is the elite play they receive from their corners. It’s a very difficult scheme for a cornerback to thrive in, but they are the star of the show.
Howard could stay or go depending on how his contract situation shakes out. If Miami were to move him, they would be getting the best possible return after a DPOY caliber season. If Jones doesn’t take a step forward this season, Miami will likely be eager to get out of that deal. Igbinoghene is being groomed for the future and could see some more playing time this season.
Coleman, Needham, Perry, and McCourty will likely have one of the more heated camp battles to determine who will get reps at slot corner. Whoever falls short there may be on the move. Williams is a developmental player and isn’t likely to make an immediate impact on the team. If he sticks for the Dolphins, he is someone to watch for in the future, though.
Grier has set this team up for success and continues to prioritize defensive backs each offseason. Expect another strong season from this group and some possible shake-ups over the next couple of seasons.