Barry Jackson

Issues looming for Dolphins’ defensive backfield and what not to read into Grier’s comment

Third in an occasional eight-part series on the Dolphins’ roster, position by position:

Chatter on the Dolphins’ defensive backfield:

Two critical issues confront general manager Chris Grier in the coming months, and the answers will shape how Miami’s secondary looks for the foreseeable future:

What approach should the Dolphins take with Xavien Howard, one of the NFL’s best cover corners who understandably wants to be among the highest paid at his position by 2020?

And how and when should Miami move Minkah Fitzpatrick back to his best position, safety, when there’s a competent veteran already at that position with a contract that doesn’t offer much relief by trading or cutting him?

When Grier stated publicly this week that from a cap allocation standpoint, he would prefer three good players instead of one great one, some took that as a referendum on Howard. It was not.

I’m told that Grier’s statement should in no way be interpreted that Miami wants to move on from Howard. To the contrary, Grier advocated the drafting of Howard. He loves the player. And Howard is the type of young piece championship teams need at a high priority position.

Howard has received no clarity about whether a long-term offer will be forthcoming this offseason, but that isn’t unusual because it’s still fairly early and the Dolphins have a zillion more immediate issues on their plate.

Howard, eligible to become an unrestricted free agent after next season, loves Miami and would happily sign an extension that would make him the highest-paid at his position. Washington’s Josh Norman owns that distinction after Washington gave him a five-year, $75 million deal in 2016; Trumaine Johnson is close at five years, $72.5 million.

We hear Howard is excited about playing for Brian Flores. He has said previously that even though he would be receptive to considering a longterm offer, he’s also fine with playing out this contract, without objections, if the Dolphins don’t offer a long-term deal.

Because the Dolphins intend to move on from several expensive veterans and go young, there will be the cap space to keep Howard long-term without a problem. The unknown is what salary numbers Grier would be comfortable offering.

If the Dolphins and Howard don’t reach an extension this offseason — and if Grier concludes he’s not going to be able to — then trading him for draft picks or using the franchise tag on him in 2020 would be the only appealing options, because losing Howard for nothing (beyond a compensatory pick) would qualify as criminal negligence and I seriously doubt the Dolphins would do that.

I still expect an effort will be made to sign Howard beyond 2019. Anything beyond that must play out.

Howard, incidentally, finished best in the NFL in passer rating against at 62.9 (minimum 50 targets). He also tied for the league lead with seven interceptions despite missing the final four weeks with a knee injury.

For the season, he allowed 29 of 57 passes to be caught for 469 yards, four touchdowns and the seven picks.

As for the other big issue: What became clear this past season is that the Dolphins likely don’t have another long-term starting boundary cornerback on the roster, if they play Fitzpatrick at the spot they originally envisioned him: free safety.

Fitzpatrick — aside from problems in the New England game — was certainly good enough at the position, with an 80.5 passer rating in his coverage area for his boundary snaps. But he can impact the game more at safety.

Including all of his work (slot corner, boundary corner and a bit of safety), opposing quarterbacks had just a 69 passer rating in his coverage area, which was fourth best among NFL cornerbacks.

One of the mistakes of the past regime was signing two safeties with overlapping skill sets in Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald, who are both better in the box.

Because Jones had to play more in a free safety role for the first time — further away from the line of scrimmage — he slipped to 41st of 90 safeties against the run, per Pro Football Focus. But the Dolphins determined he would be better able to handle that role than McDonald, who was 24th against the run.

And that’s probably true. Jones had a great 72.2 passer rating in his coverage area, compared with 101 for McDonald, 118.8 for Walt Aikens and 102.1 for Mo Smith.

Jones allowed 18 of 27 passes thrown in his coverage area to be caught for 271 yards, with one touchdown and three interceptions. McDonald allowed 27 of 36 to be caught for 375 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.

Still, the ideal combo would be Jones back at strong safety (his preference) and Fitzpatrick at free safety. Pulling that off would require making McDonald a backup (and he has proven he’s an NFL starter) or parting ways with McDonald, even though doing so wouldn’t be very beneficial to Miami’s salary cap.

Cutting McDonald would save only $1.4 million in cap space with $4.6 million in dead money — and $3.6 million of his $5 million salary is guaranteed — so there’s not much financial incentive to move on. And Jones is already guaranteed $11 million next season.

Overall, PFF rated Jones 33rd of 90 safeties and McDonald 37th.

My sense? The Dolphins will explore trade options for their veteran safeties, knowing that Fitzpatrick needs to be at safety long-term and there’s no need to delay the process. Not sure Miami can get anything in return for either safety, because of their contracts, but I would expect Miami would at least try.

The Dolphins hoped Bobby McCain could be an adequate boundary cornerback, but he wasn’t the same player after returning from a knee injury in October and he finished with poor numbers: 50 catches in 68 targets, for 556 yards (11.1 per catch against him), six touchdowns, one interception and a 120.7 passer rating in his coverage area.

So McCain needs to go back to the slot next season, where he was good enough to earn the largest contract ever given to a slot corner last offseason.

Incidentally, as CBS Sports cap expert Joel Corry pointed out this week, $3.018 million of McCain’s $5.475 million 2020 base salary, which was guaranteed for injury at signing, has become fully guaranteed.

Because the Dolphins have placed long-term winning over short-term winning, they could invest additional snaps next season in any of their four young corners, hoping at least one pans out among Cornell Armstrong, Jalen Davis, Torry McTyer and Cordrea Tankersley. They definitely want to see more of Davis.

There isn’t much reason to believe McTyer will become a long-term starting NFL corner, but there’s not enough sample size with Tankersley, who was adequate as a rookie, brutal in 2018 training camp, played sparingly for eight weeks and then was lost for the season with a Nov. 2 practice torn ACL.

He’s got a long way to go to salvage his NFL career after that injury. In limited playing time last season, he allowed all three passes thrown against him to be caught for 42 yards — a 118.8 passer rating against.

McTyer also generally struggled, allowing 22 of 27 targets to be caught for 373 yards and two touchdowns and a 143.4 passer rating in his coverage area last season.

Davis, who went undrafted last April out of Utah State, played well in his first defensive work against Jacksonville in Week 16 and finished the season having allowed five catches in seven targets for 40 yards and an 85.4 rating in his coverage area.

“I did pretty good,” he said. “I want to show I can play. I knew on draft day that people overlooked me.”

Armstrong, the 2018 sixth-round pick who also can play in the slot or at boundary, allowed seven of nine passes to be caught in his coverage area, for 59 yards. He’s around the ball a lot, so there’s something to work with there.

Final 2018 cornerback snap counts: Fitzpatrick 944 (also includes snaps at safety), Howard 803, McCain 829, McTyer 347, Armstrong 84, Davis 48 and Tankersley 29.

Final 2018 snap counts for Miami safeties: McDonald 952, Jones 825, Smith 57 and Aikens 35.

Here was part 1 of my series on the Dolphins’ running back situation, including eye-opening numbers on Kenyan Drake.

Here was part 2 of my series on the Dolphins’ receiver situation.

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