Barry Jackson

Do Dolphins have viable starter opposite Howard? Examining 12 young CBs who are competing

Scan the Dolphins roster and one thing that stands out – besides the lack of depth at defensive end – is that this regime really, really likes collecting young cornerbacks.

The Dolphins, who prefer to eventually move Minkah Fitzpatrick to safety, have been searching under every rock for a cornerback who could eventually blossom and play opposite Xavien Howard.

Whether that player is currently on the roster remains to be seen; there’s a better chance Miami will need to find that second longterm starting boundary corner in the first two days of next year’s draft.

But give Miami credit for trying. Of the 91 players under contract, 13 of them -- a whopping 14.3 percent – are cornerbacks with anywhere from zero to four seasons of NFL experience.

And excluding Pro Bowler Xavien Howard, the Dolphins need only one of those dozen others to become a quality starting cornerback --- or several to become longterm reliable backups - to make all of this worth their efforts.

That group includes Howard, two former Patriots (Eric Rowe and Jomal Wiltz), three second-year players (corner/safety Fitzpatrick, Cornell Armstrong and Jalen Davis), two third-year players with a lot to prove (Cordrea Tankersley and Torry McTyer), one veteran with a big contract (Bobby McCain), one former AAF standout (Jamar Summers) and three intriguing undrafted rookies (Northwestern’s Montre Hartage, UTEP’s Nik Needham and Boise State’s Tyler Horton).

Fitzpatrick projects as a longterm starter somewhere. Here’s what else we know:

With Fitzpatrick needed at safety (and elsewhere) in Reshad Jones’ absence this week, Rowe said he has been receiving the first-team snaps at cornerback.

But if Jones returns – and the team says he will – it would seem Fitzpatrick is needed more at corner than safety this season. Does Brian Flores agree with that?

“I think you kind of answered it yourself,” Flores said, while indicating he plans to move Fitzpatrick around to different positions. “It may look like he’s playing cornerback, he’s playing safety, he could be playing linebacker. It depends. I’ll know what he’s doing. You guys probably won’t.”

Rowe has started 17 games for Philadelphia and New England – more than any corner on the roster other than Howard and McCain. If Fitzpatrick isn’t a starting cornerback for this team, then Rowe would have a good chance of winning the job.

“Eric is smart, tough, has a lot of athletic ability,” Flores said. “He’s tall, good speed, tackles (well). There are a lot of things we like about him.”

Flores and cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer know Rowe intimately from their time together in New England. And Rowe has another advantage: He said he’s very comfortable in this defensive system because it’s very similar to the one Flores took with him from New England.

“Even though Flo and Josh know I’ve been hurt, they see I have potential,” said Rowe, who has allowed a passer rating of 85.2 in his coverage area in his career (which is good from a defensive perspective). “I’m still long [6-1]. When I was healthy, I was playing good. They know I’m healthy now so I should get back to the level I was at. It feels great to be wanted.”

Rowe, a second-round pick of Philadelphia in 2015, won a Patriots starting cornerback job in preseason last August but lost the job in the second game of the season when he was repeatedly victimized against Jacksonville.

“The reason I did bad in Jacksonville is I shouldn’t have played,” Rowe said Tuesday. “I was playing injured. I was playing with a sports hernia and groin so I couldn’t really run and me being prideful that I could do it. But I couldn’t hold my speed. After that game, I just knew I needed to take some time off. The coaches knew. You can’t play injured. It hurts the whole team.”

McCain is clearly better in the slot than the boundary and probably should remain there.

Over the past two years, quarterbacks had a 109.3 passer rating in his coverage area when he played on the boundary: 33 completions in 51 throws, for 332 yards and four touchdowns and no interceptions.

Conversely, over the past two years, QBs had an 86.6 passer rating in his coverage area when he played in the slot: 60 completions in 84 attempts, two touchdowns and three interceptions. Thanks to Pro Football Focus for those numbers.

McCain likely will be on the team in 2020 because $3.018 million of his $5.475 million 2020 base salary has become guaranteed.

Tankersley, who was torched in preseason last year, remains sidelined after October knee surgery and it remains in question whether he will begin the year on PUP. If he doesn’t, he likely needs a good camp simply to make the 53-man roster.

McTyer also needs to perform better in camp to prove that he’s anything more than a special teams player after a difficult 2018 season in which he allowed 22 of the 27 passes thrown in his direction to be caught for 373 yards and two touchdowns.

The Dolphins front office believes Armstrong and Davis have a chance to develop into defensive contributors. They love Armstrong’s speed and Davis’ ball-hawking. Davis’ play in the Week 16 Jacksonville game made a strong impression.

The Dolphins like their trio of rookies. Hartage never allowed more than a 69 passer rating in his coverage area in three years at Northwestern and Dolphins assistant general manager Marvin Allen told the team’s web site that “what stood out to me is he’s an outside corner; can also play inside. He’s tough, he’s physical. He comes from a blue collar program at Northwestern. I think he will adapt to our program.”

Needham had 51 passes thrown against him at UTEP last year but allowed only 195 yards (one of the best ratios in college football).

He’s “a very talented kid,” assistant college scouting director Matt Winston told the team’s web site. “He played outside and inside there. Has some versatility. He’s been a team captain. Another guy that can compete at corner and possibly play some nickel for us. These are the type of guys coach Flores really wants to add to this defense, who can do a lot of jobs.”

Horton had five defensive touchdowns at Boise State and co-director of player personnel Adam Engroff said “he’s kind of a playmaker, very instinctive, ton of ball production as far as PBUs, pass breakups, interceptions. I think he has an NCAA record for most return touchdowns in a game; he had two. Somebody we feel really strongly about, somebody our defensive backs coach [Boyer] feels really strongly about.”

Summers, released by the Steelers at the end of preseason last year and signed by the Dolphins on Sunday, is Miami’s eighth addition from the shuttered Alliance of American Football. He was one of the AAF’s best corners, allowing just 42.4 percent of the passes in his coverage area to be caught and permitting a passer rating of 48.9.

Summers had 12 interceptions in four years at Connecticut, including eight as a sophomore in 2015. So he’s worth a flier.

So is the athletic 5-10 Wiltz, who played only two years of college ball at Iowa State (two interceptions) but was watched closely by Flores as a member of the Patriots’ practice squad the past two years.

So perhaps Tankersley (too soon to give up on him) or Rowe or one of these cornerback “acorns” – to use one of ex-Dolphins GM’s Jeff Ireland words – will overcome the odds and develop into a solid starter. That will be one of the interesting storylines of this rebuilding year.

Here are more of my Tuesday Dolphins notes on Howard’s thoughts on his new deal, injuries, Kalen Ballage and more.

Here’s my Tuesday six-pack of media notes, including news on a couple of prominent local sportscasters.

Here’s my Tuesday post with UM’s non-conference football games scheduled in the next decade after three more were added Tuesday.

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