The biggest area of change from last year is the defensive backfield. The top two corners will be new starters, as will the free safety, and a lot of the depth has been replaced. It’s a bit ironic that, arguably, the team’s worst unit features its best player. Reshad Jones is the one sure fire returner to a secondary that was passed on last year like the overly-assertive chubby friend of the hot girl you’re chasing at the bar in the wee hours of a weekend drink-a-thon.
The players will mostly be new, the scheme will be new, and the results should be better – hell, it can’t be a lot worse. A high profile trade, a bargain free agent move and a second round pick were made to fill the starting three spots alongside Jones.
These are the defensive backs of the 2016 Miami Dolphins:
Strong Safety: #20 Reshad Jones –
The two safety positions aren’t necessarily distinguishable for the Dolphins, but Jones’ propensity to play in the box and disrupt so many plays near the line of scrimmage give him the moniker of strong safety. He can blitz (two sacks in ’15), play the run (135 tackles), cover the deep centerfield (five interceptions) and play underneath on tight ends and backs leaking out of the backfield (two returns for touchdowns.) He’s one of, if not the best, safety in the NFL and I’m counting my blessings that his holdout ended after a grueling twenty three minute stare down.
Free Safety: #24 Isa Abdul-Quddus –
The former Lion climbed his way up the ladder into a starting role. Originally a special-teams ace, Abdul-Quddus earned his stripes chasing down punts and kicks before starting seven of the final eight games in Detroit. This is a player that was brought in for cheap with the potential for upside. He’s known for his football acumen which will take a heavy burden off Jones as the last line of defense for the ‘Phins.
Right Cornerback: #41 Byron Maxwell –
The first of two towers acquired at the corner position, the 6 foot 1 corner played primarily on the right side in Seattle and was tested and proven time and time again. His performance earned him a massive contract with the Eagles who decided, after one year, that they had seen enough. Philadelphia moved him across the formation, had him playing in various zone looks, and expected similar results. Miami will get him back into a man press and run look where he’s best at chasing the play, locating the ball and timing his jump.
Left Cornerback: #36 Tony Lippett –
This isn’t the popular pick in the clubhouse to start on the perimeter but I’m a fan of Lippett’s style. His route recognition stems from his experience at the wide receiver position. He, obviously, has great hands and has the lateral agility and height to compete with the new age type of receiver the NFL has to offer.
Slot Cornerback: #28 Bobby McCain –
A fifth round pick in 2015, McCain did most of his early work on special teams. As the season progressed, he found himself starting four games in nickel packages as the slot cover-man. His 0.27 yards allowed per coverage snap was by far the lowest in football for slot corners. He’s light on his feet, has fluid hips and can change directions in a pinch – ideal characteristics for a nickel back. 11 picks in his final 22 college games display his ball skills.
Dime Package: #31 Michael Thomas –
I think the Dolphins want to see Thomas on the field more and he’ll have to hold of some competition to earn this role to compliment his special-teams impact. He plays with passion that can spark the defense but lacks the physical skills to be an out and out starter. His interception of Tom Brady to seal a win in week 15 of 2013 remains the biggest moment of the Tannehill era for Miami.
Fourth Cornerback: #25 Xavien Howard –
Continuing the theme of adding lengthy, athletic corners that can play press man, Howard checks all the boxes Miami wants in a corner. I’m sure the team wants him to beat Lippett for the second perimeter job, but I’m going to defer to the second year player for now. Howard has ball skills, strength and, at times, looks like an elite lockdown corner. It’s the two or three times a game where his tape makes you scratch your head that made him a second round pick instead of a top 15 guy.
Fourth Safety: #35 Walt Aikens –
I’ve seen enough of Aikens to want him on the field defensively any time soon, but he can contribute on special teams. He’s always a couple of steps late in recognition and shows no ability to play the ball.
Reclamation Project: #33 Ifo Ekpre-Olomu –
He was my top rated cornerback in the 2015 draft class before destroying his knee late in his final year at Oregon. He was given a death certificate in April of that year when selected by the Browns, but now has a new lease on life with the Dolphins (that’s right Browns fans, even ‘Phins fans get to make fun of you.) He’s got the size this staff desires and could be a homerun of a cheap signing.
Cornerback/Safety: #21 Jordan Lucas –
He played a little of both for Penn State and was selected by the Dolphins for the same reasons as most of the guys above – his size. He plays with an alpha male mentality and lays the lumber.
Practice Squad: #40 Lafayette Pitts –
It’s getting to the point of sheer repetition now. Pitts is a thickly built corner that plays with the confidence like he’s the best player on the field. He’s got a tough road to hoe to make the 53 man roster, but I definitely want to keep him around. He played in all 52 career games at Pittsburgh starting 51 of them.
Camp Casualty: #27 Shamiel Gary –
After being cut by New England, Chicago and Miami, he was eventually brought back and promoted to the 53 man roster last Thanksgiving. He saw spot duty but not enough to beat out any of the DB’s ahead of him.
Camp Casualty: #29 Tyler Patmon –
Another practice squad player from a year ago, Patmon got a late promotion to play in the New England finale, but he has too many players to over-come. He is a practice squad candidate.
Camp Casualty: #38 Chimdi Chekwa –
The most experienced of the camp casualties, the former fourth round pick spent four years with the Raiders before they had seen enough.
Camp Casualty: #37 A.J. Hendy –
The 6 foot 1, 200 pound former Maryland Terp is a potential practice squad body – but nothing more.
My excitement for this group probably exceeds that of my Dolphins fan peers. The weakness at the safety spot opposite Jones made him feel responsible for too much and the coaching staff was too blind to get that corrected. I fully expect Miami’s best player to have an even better 2016 campaign.
This is a physical group that will beat up receivers and force quarterbacks to go over the top. To win the division, you have to beat New England and the plan is clear that they want to stop the short passing game of Tom Brady and get the pressure on the 38 year old quarterback to rattle him like Denver did in the AFC title game. Once again, this team finally has direction and purpose.
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