During the 2019 season the Miami Dolphins had the worst-ranked defense in the NFL.
Allowing a league-worst 39 passing touchdowns and more than 4,000 passing yards, Miami’s front office knew it had a lot of work to do to make a haul of changes and begin rebuilding with a new look.
Dolphins Add Defensive Depth
So, wasting little time, the Dolphins set out during the offseason to grab as many players they felt would add substance to their secondary as possible. While Miami added players on both sides of the football, it added more players to its defense than its offense.
“I think you’re always trying to build as much competition as you possibly can and I think obviously (General Manager) Chris (Grier) and ‘Flo’ (Head Coach Brian Flores) did a good job of acquiring as many good players as we possibly could,” new defensive coordinator Josh Boyer said.
Cornerback Byron Jones is a solid addition after playing five years with the Dallas Cowboys. He joins former Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who is also new to the team, as a great veteran addition that adds both championship pedigree and leadership to the defense. Miami also used a first-round draft pick on a solid cornerback in Noah Igbinoghene who can also play multiple positions.
Flores was vocal last season about putting the best 11 defensive players on the field, even if it wasn’t their listed positions. A lot of the team bought into the plan, which showed to work in the second half of the season, and those who didn’t were traded or released.
Now that the Dolphins are in helmets and practicing, it’s time for coaches to decide who starts and for players to prove their worth with one final push. Additionally, with no preseason games, second-string players and players further down the depth chart will have even more pressure as they try to carve out a role in limited opportunities.
Cornerback Xavien Howard is Miami’s best player in the secondary and is entering his fifth year in the NFL. Howard had a down 2019 season after a knee injury landed him on injured reserve and cost him most of the season. While he’s still rehabbing, there has been no indication that he will miss time in 2020 from the coaching staff. Howard is also expected to be activated off of the COVID-19/Physically Unable to Perform list after returning to the team on Saturday.
In 2018 Howard played just 12 games but managed to lead the league with seven interceptions and in the process got selected to his first Pro Bowl. The main problem Howard has faced during his professional career is remaining healthy for an entire season. Out of 64 total games Howard has played in just 40, and during his four years has played a full 16 games in just one season (2017).
But the biggest problems the secondary may be facing this year is developing chemistry. Having your top corner out during training camp and no preseason games can make it tough to develop with the other new faces.
“First, our goal is to gel together because every year it’s a new team. So we’ve got new players in the secondary,” Dolphins safety Eric Rowe said. “We’ve got Noah (Igbinoghene) and Brandon (Jones) and Byron (Jones) and even whenever ‘X’ (Xavien Howard) comes back, so our first thing is we’ve got to gel together and then our second goal is to get the ball.”
Jones is entering his sixth season in the NFL and has played in two different positions for the Cowboys’ secondary. He started his career as a free safety and was eventually moved to CB in 2018. After that move he made the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career.
Jones has been very healthy throughout his career, playing in 16 games during every season except for 2019 (15 games). Although playing throughout six seasons Jones has only managed to get two interceptions, bringing up many questions about his real impact in the secondary. The Dolphins need players to remain on the field. They struggled with constant injuries in 2019, seemingly losing at least one player weekly, so Jones’ addition should improve the unit in that way as well.
Players like Jones that have a handful of years in the league will have the opportunity to help young and developing corners. Igbinoghene is one of the newly drafted secondary players that is taking advantage and picking the brains of the veterans on the team. Miami is rumored to try a three-CB set this season, playing Howard, Jones and Igbinoghene all at the same time even if they aren’t all listed as CBs. The loss of linebacker Vince Biegel for the year (torn Achilles), who would have rotated in and out of packages, further bolsters Igbinoghene’s usage as a rookie.
“A few teammates – I’d say probably Byron Jones, Bobby McCain, Eric Rowe – some of the veterans. They’ve really helped me just setting the standard of how practice is supposed to be,” Igbinoghene said. “That’s something that I had to learn the last couple days just being out here in the sun, so they really taught me how to practice and I’ll continue to get better in that every single day.”
Igbinoghene was drafted with the No. 30 pick in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft out of the University of Auburn. He spent three seasons at Auburn playing no less than 12 games in each year.
His sophomore year was his best statistically, having 39 solo tackles, one interception, 11 passes defended, along with one forced fumble. He also played as a returner for Auburn, and both in his sophomore and junior seasons, saw one of his returns go for a TD.
It’s normal for rookies to start slow when they first enter the league, and the former New England Patriot Rowe has got to see Igbinoghene during training camp and how the young corner is going through his progressions and growing pains.
“He has a lot of potential. He’s explosive, strong, quick and obviously he works hard as hell. He doesn’t care that he’s first round or whatever round he went; I can tell, you can see in his eye that he wants to great from the start,” Rowe said. “So what I’ve seen from him in camp … he still makes rookie mistakes like everybody does; but I can tell his learning progression, he’s going to be a good guy in the league.”
CB Jamal Perry is going into his second season with the Dolphins. With Howard still out with his knee and currently placed on the COVID-19/PUP list, Perry is very much in the starting CB race. Flores is remaining focused on the guys who are on the field and that may be one the best things Perry has going for him.
“There’s a lot of competition at that position with Byron (Jones) to Noah (Igbinoghene) to Nik Needham to Jamal Perry to Tae Hayes to Ken Webster,” Flores said. “There’s a lot of competition. We’re kind of focused on the guys who are here.”
In Perry’s one season with Miami he registered 55 total tackles and one interception. Perry has moved around in his first couple of years in the league, first signing as an undrafted college free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles before being quickly waived just four months later. He then was signed and released by the Patriots three times between 2017 and 2019 before he signed on with Miami.
CB Needham will be going into his second season in the league and after starting in 11 games in 2019 he may have to work twice as hard to get those same reps in 2020. During his rookie year Needham caught two interceptions, forced one fumble and combined for 54 tackles.
But while he had a lot of opportunities on the defensive end playing in 67-percent of the snaps, he also had a lot of balls thrown in his direction. Needham allowed 15 yards per completion and eight touchdowns. He also appeared in a lot of games where starters were injured, and while Needham showed vast season improvements, he could still be on the outside looking in.
Further on the Depth Chart
Howard, Jones, Igbinoghene, Perry and Needham are the most likely one-two players at the CB position to begin the year. But, the Dolphins are currently carrying six other CBs just in case: Nate Brooks, Picasso Nelson Jr., Breon Borders, Deatrick Nichols, Tae Hayes and Ken Webster. Their NFL history can be found here.
Miami has made multiple additions to their secondary and have moved a couple players to new positions in the process. The Dolphins new-look unit will have to work hard to remain on the same page. Miami’s secondary has a tough regular season ahead of them, playing seven pro bowl quarterbacks and some of the best offenses in the league.
Editor’s Note: Jamal Perry does not have a player profile on profootballreference.com, the site FPC Dolphins uses to highlight players.