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NFL Draft

Dolphins Sorting Out CB Position At Training Camp

  • The Draft Network
  • August 5, 2021
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The Miami Dolphins’ offensive attack has been revived thus far during 2021 training camp, a promising development for a team that saw their 2020 rookie quarterback struggle at times with grasping his reads and knowing where his opportunities were as a passer. But the unit that is on the other side of the ball for all of the aggressive shot plays in Miami is taking one directly on the nose without their best player, cornerback Xavien Howard. 

The Dolphins defense made a rapid turnaround in 2020, going from the league’s worst unit to sixth in the NFL in scoring in just one year—a true testament to the coaching ability of Brian Flores and the talent upgrades provided by general manager Chris Grier. And the Dolphins were attentive to adding to the defensive side of the ball this offseason, too. 

But one simply does not simply walk into Mordor and prepare for the loss of a talent like Howard. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Howard isn’t all the way gone just yet—he’s only requested a trade amid a dispute with his contract and is missing practice with a minor ankle injury. 

But in his absence, the Dolphins appear to be conducting something of an evaluation of the rest of the players in the cornerback room, searching for someone, anyone, who could possibly step into Howard’s shoes on the perimeter and allow the team to take a potential departure via trade in stride. There’s no shortage of contenders, either. The team has free-agent addition from 2020 Byron Jones locking down one side of the field and no less than three legitimate contenders to play the other outside role: 

  • Noah Igbinoghene, the 30th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft
  • Nik Needham, a 2019 UDFA who has started in the nickel the last two seasons
  • Jason McCourty, a 2021 free-agent acquisition

Talk about every possible walk of life in the NFL spectrum all meeting in one place: A talented, but raw top draft choice, a scrappy UDFA underdog, and a grizzled veteran. They are all faced with a prime opportunity in training camp to prove to the Dolphins that, should a team offer Howard the moon in order to bring him into the picture, they can be the guy opposite Jones. 

But after having taken in practice over the course of the last two days for myself in Miami Gardens, one thing is abundantly clear: no one is filling the potential void left behind by Howard. He’s too different and this collection of players is simply too limited in one way, shape, or form. Here’s how the contenders are faring in Howard’s current absence from practice: 

Noah Igbinoghene

If the Dolphins are hoping that Igbinoghene will take a major leap in Year 2 after a quiet rookie season in 2020, they’ll need to see more from the young corner in a hurry. Igbinoghene was underwhelming on both days of practice and at times appeared to be pressing—and not in coverage. He’s trying hard to make some positive plays happen, whether it be trying to punch the ball out in a 2-on-1 tackling drill or attacking the catch point. But his punch of the ball came late in the drill and his efforts to crowd the catch point yielded a penalty from the officials in attendance. 

Wednesday was disheartening in a different kind of way as Igbinoghene got scorched deep on more than one occasion. And it wasn’t one of Miami’s speedy receivers that tagged him either—it wasn’t Will Fuller or Jaylen Waddle or Albert Wilson or Jakeem Grant. No, it was perennial practice squad player Isaiah Ford and veteran Allen Hurns, neither of which project to make the active roster this fall.

Igbinoghene has all the physical talent in the world, but things aren’t clicking yet. The Dolphins will need to remain patient here and hope for the best. However, if he’s on the clock for 2021, Miami may need to concede he’s still in need of more seasoning to grasp his technique and trust his keys. 

Nik Needham

Needham has been the best, most consistent option for Miami thus far into camp, both via practice reports of what things look like sans Howard and what I was able to see with my own set of eyes this week while in attendance at Baptist Health Training Complex. That’s a bit of a surprise given that Needham has been erratic with his play with the Dolphins as the team’s nickel cornerback over the last two seasons. 

Needham has played a ton, logging 60%+ snaps in each of the last two seasons. And while playing inside is often a thankless job, Needham hasn’t exactly shined there. Pro Football Focus credits him with 17 penalties, 12 touchdowns allowed, 14 missed tackles, and a 64.5% completion percentage allowed over 141 targets these past two seasons. He’s often quick to grab at the top of the route, and you don’t need to look any further than the Dolphins’ season finale in 2020 against the Buffalo Bills for evidence of his apparent limitations. The Bills tagged him three times on three targets for 77 yards and three touchdowns in coverage. Ouch.

And yet, here is Needham, fighting and clawing in coverage to undercut targets to Waddle, as he did on Wednesday for a clean pass defensed. He’s got great energy and a short-term memory for negative plays. As much as you’d ideally love for someone to take the job and get a better athlete on the field, right now, it is apparent that Needham has the understanding of the defense to elevate his play relative to the other alternatives, including Igbinoghene (who is the inverse of Needham in that he’s high on athleticism but short on instincts). 

Jason McCourty

McCourty feels like something of an insurance policy in multiple spots. He’s gotten run with the first-team defense as a free safety early in camp but transitioned to cornerback on Wednesday’s practice as the Dolphins pushed 2021 second-round pick Jevon Holland into the starting free safety role. (Holland, by the way, rewarded the team with an interception of Tua Tagovailoa, the latter’s first pick at camp in a week.)

In transitioning back to cornerback, McCourty has the most experience playing on the outside and is well versed with the kinds of coverage concepts Flores is going to implement—the pair overlapped for one season in New England in 2018. And considering McCourty stayed in New England for the 2019 and 2020 seasons as well, there’s no question he can mentally handle the reps outside. 

However, he is going to be 34 years old at the start of the regular season (his birthday comes on Aug. 13) and physically doesn’t have the same juice he once did as an impactful starter with the Tennessee Titans throughout the 2010s. Miami will want more dynamic play outside, which is why McCourty getting looks at safety is probably a safer projection for extending his career. 

If anything, these dynamics will motivate Miami to try to close the gap between Howard’s wishes and their own principles in dealing with player negotiations. But, as the Aaron Rodgers saga reminded us just last month, stars usually get what they want, one way or another. But in the meantime, Miami will continue to entertain a battle for the outside cornerback role. And, should Howard return, the battle will shift inside to the nickel role, where you can also tack on Justin Coleman’s name and add him to the competition. And, depending on how Miami feels about McCourty’s ability to fill the free safety role, it may also push Holland’s name into the running here given his 2019 tape at Oregon and how impactful he was close to the line of scrimmage. 

With Howard in the mix, Miami has potentially five names competing for a role that will likely see two-thirds of the defensive snaps. In a world with Howard gone, the team has three of those names competing for a role that will see nearly 100% of the defensive reps. And with none of the three well-suited to fill his shoes or even showing more than modest ability to play the position, you can do the math for yourself on where Miami is most likely to go from here.

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