This is the second of a series of columns on 2020 NFL free agency that will look into the Miami Dolphins’ situation as it will stand next March when the new league year will make available unrestricted veterans for whom Dolphins general manager Chris Grier has promised to be “very aggressive.”
Xavien Howard is coming off a bad game against the Dallas Cowboys. The Miami Dolphins cornerback gave up six catches on seven targets against Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper and was tossed from the game in the fourth quarter.
Miami’s Pro Bowl defensive back was obviously frustrated throughout the game.
And the Dolphins are viewing that correctly now. It was one game. It was an uncommon struggle for an otherwise excellent player.
So nothing to see here.
“I mean look, he played against a good player,” Dolphins coach Brian Flores said Wednesday. “I think when you have a tough player, yeah there is always frustration. Xavien is very resilient. The kid has been through a lot. He’s a tough kid. He’s very resilient. He definitely has a next-play mentality. What you may see as a frustration on one play and it’s gone the next. That’s what you want out of a corner, specifically one as talented as he is.
“That, to me, is not anything that’s a red flag or anything. I think he’s — I think Xavien will be good to go. He’s a good player, and I think he’ll be ready to go.”
And then we have the rest of the Miami Dolphins secondary ...
It’s an incomplete unit and a leading candidate — just behind the offensive line — to be addressed in the draft and free agency next spring.
So why is that?
Currently the Dolphins lack enough good players in the secondary to be a winning team. Bobby McCain is a good player the Dolphins currently have playing at safety. He’s valuable because he’s a good communicator who can usually get people lined up in the back end, but he also is capable of playing in the slot. So that’s one keeper aside from Howard.
And then everyone else is, for multiple reasons, a question mark.
Starting cornerback Eric Rowe is unsigned after this season. So the question with him will be how he plays the remainder of this season weighed against whether the Dolphins can upgrade from the performance Rowe has put on film in the past and is likely to continue putting on film.
Jomal Wiltz? He’s a young, developmental player who will be back next training camp. But will he be on the team? Will he be a contributor? Uncertain.
Reshad Jones? He made his 2019 debut in the season opener but hasn’t played since because of an ankle injury. He talked Wednesday about looking forward to the rest of the season and wanting to remain with the Dolphins.
“If I wanted out, I had a chance to make that known,” Jones said. “I’m here for the long haul. Like I said, I’m here to help this team win football games.”
That works in 2019 when the Dolphins and Jones have been tied to each other by a contract that prevents the team from cutting or trading him and prevents him from demanding a departure because he’s not going to make as much money elsewhere as he would here.
But next year, when Jones is 32 years old, the team can cut him and save $11.5 million in cap space with a post-June 1 transaction. If that’s the road Miami travels, and it probably is considering Miami shopped Jones this offseason, the team must fill its strong safety spot.
Walt Aikens is something of a coaching staff favorite now. He has always been good on special teams, and he gets work on defense under this staff. He is unsigned after this season, but see no reason why the team wouldn’t try to bring him back in his current role.
The Dolphins also have multiple younger, unproven guys or older fill-in guys — Steven Parker, Johnson Bademosi, Ken Webster, Chris Lammons — who might or might not be on the team throughout this year or next year.
So, yeah, the Dolphins will need to add bodies. And they will likely need at least one or two starters, depending on the decisions with Jones and Rowe.
And there is no pressing reason for the Dolphins to address these needs in free agency because one can find excellent safeties and cornerbacks in the draft — even in the second round. The Dolphins have a likely later first-round pick next season (aside from potentially two earlier picks) and two second-round picks.
But remember, free agency will begin nearly a month before the draft, and wise teams take their shots to fill positions often as soon as they can. So the temptation for a team with and estimated $125 million in salary cap space will be to grab maybe one starter in free agency.
Ronald Darby of the Philadelphia Eagles. A scout mentioned this name to me Tuesday and I nearly spilled my morning coffee all over myself because this doesn’t feel right. Darby is a starting cornerback in Philly but not playing exceedingly well. He has allowed 15 receptions on 22 targets so far this season, and that isn’t good.
He is nonetheless only 26, and a slow start to the 2019 season doesn’t mean he’s going to be bad all year based on his past history for playing much better.
Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix is a safety for the Bears. And he is ballin’ right now. Obviously, he’s in a contract year because the Bears got him on a one-year deal after the Redskins moved on after only one season.
So one imagines next season Clinton-Dix be looking for some security, which he will deserve if he continues to build on his two interceptions in three games so far this season. Clinton-Dix is 27.
Want to get serious? Marcus Peters of the Los Angeles Rams. If the Rams let him hit free agency it will either be because of their salary cap situation or because of his character, which in part caused the Kansas City Chiefs to trade him.
Peters was outstanding with the Chiefs. He wasn’t quite there with the Rams in 2018 although he continued to play and often shadow the other team’s best receiver. He’s played better early this season.
The concern with Peters is his interceptions have declined steadily — 8 as a rookie, then 6, then 5 and 3 last season.
Peters at one corner and Howard at the other would nonetheless be formidable.