Armando Salguero

Reasons the Miami Dolphins are showing curious interest in safeties

Southern California running back Ronald Jones II (25) scores a touchdown against Stanford safety Justin Reid during the second half of the Pac-12 Conference championship football game on Dec. 1, 2017. Reid visits the Dolphins Wednesday.
Southern California running back Ronald Jones II (25) scores a touchdown against Stanford safety Justin Reid during the second half of the Pac-12 Conference championship football game on Dec. 1, 2017. Reid visits the Dolphins Wednesday. AP

The Miami Dolphins are hosting Stanford safety Justin Reid on Wednesday on perhaps the final visit of a potential first-round selection before the NFL Draft next week. This comes only days after the Dolphins hosted a free agent visit for former New Orleans Saints first-round draft pick Kenny Vaccaro.

Another safety.

So, as Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi once famously said, "What the hell is going on out here?"

All these visits and pleasantries and free meals for safeties raise questions because, well, the Dolphins have their two starting safeties. At least that's what we heard when the team extended the contracts of both Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald last year.

Remember, the Dolphins had Jones under contract through the end of last season but gave him a four-year extension through 2021 worth $48 million to make him one of the highest-paid safeties in the game.

Also remember, the Dolphins signed McDonald to a one-year deal last March. The $1.3 million deal was visionary because McDonald was headed to an eight-game NFL suspension, so he would play half the season at a bargain rate while solving an obvious issue for the team.

Interestingly, the Dolphins got a month's worth of training camp work out of McDonald and were so impressed they paid him via an extension. The team signed McDonald to a four-year, $24 million extension and that led everyone to believe Miami had decided on its safety duo of the future.

The Miami Dolphins could use help at defensive tackle, linebacker and tight end. With the 11th pick in the NFL Draft, here are some names they might take with that pick.

Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald.

Except here we are in the spring of 2018 and the Dolphins are looking for safeties — adding to other more obvious needs like linebacker and tight end. And not only is the team looking at safeties, they might draft one in the first round if the right (wrong) scenario plays out.

Well, I'm told the following by people familiar with the team's thinking ...

The Dolphins really like Jones and McDonald, but both are more or less box safety types. And while that's really good if the NFL was all about running the football, the opposite is true. The NFL is mostly about passing the football.

That means the Dolphins need a box safety, but a coverage safety to handle the middle and deep portions of the field would be better.

So Jones and McDonald together aren't as perfectly suited as everyone thought.

Also, the duo looked pretty good in training camp. But coaches noticed that when McDonald came back from his suspension, he and Jones didn't synch up as well as everyone thought. The combo started the final eight games together, but even at the end it wasn't as seamless as it had been previously imagined.

So the Dolphins have something of an issue.

They can hope Jones and McDonald can get it figured out and one can become the middle-of-the-field coverage guy the team wants or ...

The team can find someone else to do that.

Obviously, in hosting Vaccaro and Reid, the team is exploring the idea of finding someone else.

Why Vaccaro? He has played as both the box safety and coverage safety during his time in New Orleans. The Saints saw him as more proficient as the box safety. Former Saints defensive coach and current Dolphins consultant Joe Vitt (coach Adam Gase's father-in-law) sees him as better in coverage.

So Vaccaro could be that guy — except he wants to get paid at a certain level. The Dolphins don't want to rise to that level because they have salary cap issues preventing it, and so no signing yet.

The team would like to add Vaccaro and still might do that if it doesn't draft someone and the veteran's asking price comes down a bit. The Dolphins do get a $17 million salary cap infusion from the Ndamukong Suh move after June 1, which might not be too late to add Vaccaro.

And why Reid?

Reid is a very good coverage safety type. And he's almost certain to be available when the Dolphins draft at No. 11 overall in the first round — something you might not be able to say about Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick, for example.

Indeed, Reid would probably be available even if the Dolphins decide to trade down from No. 11.

So the team is trying to line up possibilities that would fit a need should certain draft-day situations arise.

Finally, that leaves the question about the Jones-McDonald combo ...

What up with that?

The Dolphins have made contract decisions expecting those two to be the guys. And now they are hedging their bet because the reality of the combo's abilities and play so far hasn't fit the vision.

Well, if nothing happens with the addition of a coverage safety in the draft or free agency then I imagine the Dolphins will try to make this combo work.

If the Dolphins, however, succeed in adding a starting-caliber coverage safety then we have a three-headed situation for two safety spots.

And that's where McDonald's 6-3 and 205-pound frame might find itself playing some linebacker in passing situations. Or a lot of linebacker if the Dolphins can't draft a starter.

The Dolphins don't see having McDonald as a situational player at a different position than originally envisioned as a problem because they're not yet fully invested on that contract.

Yes, McDonald is expected to be on the team because it would be more expensive cutting him than keeping him. But he only counts $2.5 million against the salary cap in 2018. His big cap numbers of $6 million, then $7.5 million and then $6.9 million to kick in until 2019.

By then the Dolphins might have found a more suitable coverage safety. And McDonald might be playing some hybrid linebacker spot. Or playing for someone else.

Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero
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