One of the intriguing subplots of Dolphins training camp will be sorting out a defensive backfield where at least one starting job is open and roles have changed for at least two key players.
Here’s what we’ve learned in the weeks since the offseason program ended:
▪ The Dolphins were pleased with how Bobby McCain fared in his move from cornerback to free safety and are now comfortable leaving him there, barring a sudden need for him at cornerback, according to multiple sources.
The new role will allow McCain to play in dime packages and give Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald a breather when needed, with Jones and McDonald both equipped to play strong safety in a two-man pairing with McCain. Expect the three of them will play together some.
▪ Though the new regime plans to play Minkah Fitzpatrick in various roles, they realize his value as a slot cornerback, and he’s expected to get considerable work in that role. Fitzpatrick ranked among the NFL’s best last season when asked to defend receivers in the slot.
▪ The Dolphins would love for Eric Rowe to win the boundary cornerback job opposite Xavien Howard; he was given every opportunity to do that in the offseason program with consistent first-team work, according to a source.
The results have been mixed so far, with Rowe beaten several times in the five practices open to the media.
Aside from Fitzpatrick, Rowe, at 6-1, is the most experienced and tallest option among cornerbacks competing opposite Xavien Howard. None of the other boundary cornerback options, such as Torry McTyer, has overtaken Rowe.
Coach Brian Flores has a comfort level and familiarity with Rowe from their time together in New England. Flores has made clear he likes Rowe’s skill set, and this job is very much his to lose entering camp.
Opinion here: The Dolphins need to get Fitzpatrick on the field every down. So when Miami plays only four defensive backs, Fitzpatrick should play boundary over Rowe. Fitzpatrick has received some work at boundary in the offseason program.
If Rowe bombs in August, the Dolphins always have the option of using Fitzpatrick full-time at boundary and moving McCain back to nickel cornerback.
▪ The Dolphins like what they’ve seen from former Patriots 5-10 practice squad cornerback Jomal Wiltz and he could assume a role in certain packages if he impresses in training camp and preseason games. Wiltz played alongside starters in some formations in the offseason program, according to a source.
▪ What Reshad Jones said publicly — that he would like to remain with the Dolphins — is reflective of how he genuinely feels, according to a source. Jones and coach Brian Flores have built a solid relationship and the likelihood is he will be on the team.
▪ So how will the Dolphins find enough snaps for six defensive backs — Xavien Howard, Fitzpatrick, Jones, McDonald, McCain and potentially Rowe — if there aren’t injuries?
That shouldn’t be a problem. Keep in mind that the Patriots, with Flores as de facto defensive coordinator, used six natural defensive backs on 27 percent of their defensive snaps last season — among the highest totals in the league.
▪ What’s more, the Patriots last year used a formation with three defensive linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs on 20 percent of their defensive snaps, per Pro Football Focus. For perspective, the league — on average — used that alignment just three percent of the time.
But that 3-2-6 lineup appears to make sense for Miami in a pass-happy league for a couple of reasons: Miami has more established quality NFL players in the defensive backfield than on the defensive line. Playing a lot of three-man line (with some combination of Christian Wilkins, Davon Godchaux, Akeem Spence, Vincent Taylor, Tank Carradine, plus ends/linebackers Charles Harris and Nate Orchard) will mask the modest talent at defensive end.
Also in that lineup, the Dolphins can get by with Jerome Baker and Kiko Alonso as their two linebackers on the field, with Raekwon McMillan going to the bench in clear passing situations.
▪ Last year, the Patriots used four defensive linemen, one linebacker and six defensive backs on seven percent of their plays, which is another option for Flores here. They used two lineman, three linebackers and six defensive backs only one play all season.
▪ One close associate of Dolphins players said players have been left with the impression that the three-man defensive line will be used more than the four-man line. That makes sense considering the lack of high-end NFL talent at defensive end.
▪ Among young defensive backs not previously mentioned in this piece, keep an eye on second-year cornerbacks Cornell Armstrong and Jalen Davis, both of whom had some very good moments in the offseason program. And the Dolphins remain intrigued with Northwestern rookie cornerback Montre Hartage, who consistently held opposing quarterbacks to low passer ratings when targeted.