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Defensive Backs to Keep An Eye On

Kevin Dern

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Picking up from where we left off after the 7 Names for the Defensive Front 7 the Dolphins secondary figures to receive a bit of a makeover as well over the next year or two.  While it doesn’t possess as many holes as the front seven, I think Brian Flores will want to address it to get the types of players he needs to execute the Patriots-style defensive I detailed in my deep dive earlier this year.  The plus factor is that the secondary comes with one of the team’s two blue chip players, cornerback Xavien Howard.  If my hunch is correct, Minkah Fitzpatrick seems like the leading candidate to assume the Devin McCourty role and become the second blue chip player in the defensive backfield in short order.

Bobby McCain should return to the slot exclusively this season, barring injuries to others, and his play should go back to the level he was at in 2017, though he might see fewer snaps given the propensity of the defense to use safeties as slot defenders – more on that later.

In addition to Howard, Fitzpatrick and McCain, Miami have Eric Rowe who has played in this defense the last three years.  He’s versatile, having played both cornerback and safety, but he’s played in just 21 of 48 games over that span.  Bear that in mind.  Cordrea Tankersley, whom many forget was very good as a rookie, should fit better in this defense than he did in Matt Burke’s, but the “if” with him is his injury recovery and when he’ll be available.  The corner spot after Tankersley is a collection of guys with limited experience, but with other needs Miami may be inclined to roll with that group in 2019.

The safety position is another matter.  While there are certain aspects of the defense that will suit Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald, I think it’s relatively easy to look at those guys and see that they likely aren’t great fits for what Miami will want to do.  Contractual situations may have a hand in keeping both around longer than the coaching staff may like.  Because of that, I do wonder if it would preclude Miami from drafting a safety like Mississippi State’s Johnathan Abram, my favorite safety in the draft, because his role would likely be like both Jones and McDonald.

What I think Miami will be on the lookout for, given the sheer number of needs in the front seven, are guys that can play middle of the field (MOF) safety, as well as some split safety.  I think the most important thing for Miami is finding this player, so they have the flexibility to use Minkah Fitzpatrick in different situations like the Patriots use Devin McCourty.  If the Dolphins trade back and acquire multiple picks, they may view themselves as having enough currency to address the strong safety spot as well.  This would likely assume that they’re able to move on from Jones and/or McDonald during or after the Draft.

So, if the Dolphins are wont to make changes, here are some prospects I think they will consider.

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson – Safety – Florida #23
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson looks the part of someone that Miami will be onto in this year’s Draft.  As a sophomore in 2017, CGJ played more true free safety looks.  In 2018, you’ll see a lot more of him in the slot.  Position versatility is something this staff will like.  Let’s take a look at some of the things they ought to like about him.

1) Range – In this clip from 2017 against Florida State CGJ is lined up out of the shot as the play starts.  As the play develops, you’ll see him cover from the hash to outside the numbers against a corner route and separate ball from man.

https://youtu.be/IjZGe7Ty0ug?t=31

Here’s another example of it from Florida’s Peach Bowl win over Michigan.  In this clip, CJG starts out as a slot defender and peels back off the deep over route to undercut the backside post route and get a pick.

https://youtu.be/FqZmzSy0eeI?t=205

2)  Play Recognition – Play recognition can be hit-or-miss with CGJ at times.  I’m not sure if it’s more a coaching issue at Florida or he’s a beat slow to click and close on some plays, but when he gets it right it often leads to success on the play.  Here against Tennessee the Vols will run a bubble screen with the back behind the line of scrimmage.  CGJ is able to read the play, defeat his block and notches a TFL.

https://youtu.be/FqZmzSy0eeI?t=50

You can see another example of the same type of recognition on a similar play against LSU.

https://youtu.be/FqZmzSy0eeI?t=70

3) Open-field tackling – Not every defensive back excels at tackling in space.  But with CGJ, it’s pretty solid, and having played some slot, which puts you in space, will have served him well.  In this rep against Georgia on a 3rd & Goal, CGJ is lined up as the backside safety.  He’s able to close and stop Deandre Swift on the draw play and save a TD with a nice open-field tackle.

https://youtu.be/FqZmzSy0eeI?t=122

CGJ does it again here against Missouri QB Drew Lock.  What’s impressive is that he runs around the block instead of playing through it and takes an inside angle but is still able to track down Lock.

https://youtu.be/FqZmzSy0eeI?t=139

Quick Summary – Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is a 2nd round pick through and through.  There are traits that are there to work with, but he’s not quite there yet.  As I mentioned, there are times when he’s a beat late in coverage or recognizing the play.  There are plays where he’ll run himself into blocks or away from contact, but when he gets it right, he gets it right.

 Amani Hooker – Safety – Iowa #27
Next we move to the B1G and Iowa safety Amani Hooker.  He’s built and plays a very similar to role to Florida’s Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, and that’s why I think Miami might be onto him.  He has experience in playing as a free safety and in the slot, like CGJ, but might possess better play recognition.

1) Recognition & Click-and-close – In this rep against Iowa State, Hooker is lined up as a split safety.  He reads the power play and flies up in run support.  Yes, David Montgomery is able to spin away from his tackle somewhat, but the recognition and hit by Hooker allows his teammate to clean up the play for a gain of just a yard.

https://youtu.be/8R4fAG-zapE?t=23

Just for fun, he does it again the very next play and helps get in on the tackle.  https://youtu.be/8R4fAG-zapE?t=32

Here, against Northern Illinois, Hooker is able to use his eyes and recognizes a second dig route and gets himself a pick.  The Huskies are lined up with formation to the left with Iowa in zone.  Hooker smartly passes the seam route along to a deep safety and comes across with the first dig route, but the QB never triggers.  Hooker reads the QB’s eyes and drifts back to the deeper dig route and snatches a pick.

https://youtu.be/fdut1RW8cK4?t=2

2)  Run support – A bit later in the Northern Illinois game, Hooker will show his ability to support the run off the edge.  Lined up as a strong safety against a double TE look, Hooker is responsible for the edge and times his run blitz well.  He makes sure to honor the jet sweep motion and comes down hard to make the stop for what should have been a safety.

https://youtu.be/fdut1RW8cK4?t=20

Against Illinois, Hooker will make a nice play against the option.  Here he’s lined up as a slot safety.  He reads the play, defeats the block and makes a TFL, and he does it like it’s shown in the textbook.

https://youtu.be/fdut1RW8cK4?t=196

3) Coverage Recognition – In this rep against Maryland, Hooker drops deep in a Cover 2 Zone look, reads the QB (who apparently didn’t watch his film on throwing a corner route against Hooker) and gets a INT.

https://youtu.be/fdut1RW8cK4?t=122

Against the Purdue, Hooker is the slot defender on this rep.  Here he’s able to meet the receiver at the top of the stem, read the skinny post and undercuts it for another interception.

https://youtu.be/fdut1RW8cK4?t=138

Quick Summary – If you could fuse Amani Hooker’s recognition and instincts with Chauncey Gardner-Johnson’s athletic ability, you’d have a helluva safety.  But make no mistake, Hooker can ball.  His lack of elite speed and athleticism will have to be considered – you can gameplan around that on defense – but he’s got a role as an all-around safety who is smart and physical.

Mike Edwards – Safety – Kentucky #7
The Miami Dolphins signed a free agent from my hometown of Cincinnati already this season (Tank Carradine, Taft High School).  If they were to draft Mike Edwards (Winton Woods High School) they’d have another Cincinnatian.  Edwards is smaller than both CGJ and Amani Hooker, but played in a similar role for the Wildcats.  He’s met with Miami leading up to the Draft, so let’s see why the Dolphins may like him.

1) Tackling – Despite his 5’10” 205lbs frame, Edwards is a very good tackler.  On this rep against the Florida Gators, he’s lined up in the slot, almost playing as a linebacker, and he’s responsible for the hook zone.  No one enters, so he reads the quarterback and finds the Texas route being run by Jordan Scarlett.  Yes, Scarlett drops the pass, but Edwards’ recognition causes that and Edwards still delivers a nice pop.

https://youtu.be/S-jf0xlrd50?t=199

In this play, Edwards is lined up on the edge, much like how the Patriots have used Patrick Chung.  In effect, he’s almost playing SAM LB on this rep because of his alignment.  That’s interesting to note.  Texas A&M runs a power toss play.  Edwards simply blows past everyone and stuffs Trayveon Williams for a 4 yard loss.

https://youtu.be/M7-0ljrNXHc?t=8

2) Versatility – Edwards also has reps as a FS for the Wildcats.  I wanted to show an example of him switching roles in-game.  This play is on the same drive as his TFL against the Aggies.  Here he rotates from a MOF safety in single-high to a split safety.  No one attacks the seam or deep middle, so he’s free and comes up in support of the quarterback scrambling.  He doesn’t make a play here, but I think it’s worth pointing out he’s assignment sound as both a safety and as a slot defender.

https://youtu.be/M7-0ljrNXHc?t=23

In this rep against Georgia Edwards is lined up as a split safety.  Here you can see him support the run as he comes up to assist on a tackle of Elijah Holyfield in a goal-to-go situation.  I like his feistiness to come up and try and deliver a hit here.  Not every safety will do that, especially those that are undersized.

https://youtu.be/FxmRjbQVHIg?t=17

3) Ball awareness – Edwards has 10 interceptions to his name as a member of the Wildcats and one of the main reasons for that is his ability to get around the football.  Here against Tennessee as a deep safety he’s able to track the deep ball, time his jump against a bigger receiver and break up the pass.

https://youtu.be/UIwK3I5yNg0?t=336

Edwards does it again in this example on a deep ball from Jake Fromm against Georgia knocking this ball away from the 6’2” Jeremiah Holloman on the post route.

https://youtu.be/ojNHQXlo9FE?t=48

Sometimes is just better to have great reflexes.  Edwards grabs this pick-6 off a deflection.  There are two other interceptions that Edwards nabbed in his career off deflections.

https://youtu.be/ojNHQXlo9FE?t=32

Quick Summary – As we know, Miami’s got a lot of needs in the defensive front seven and pretty much every offensive line position other than Laremy Tunsil ought to be set in pencil at this point.  So, if that’s the case and Miami pushes finding a safety back a round or two, Mike Edwards would be a guy I’d love to nab in round 4 or 5, if he’s there.  His versatility and tackling ability are things that stand out and will be needed in this defense.  I also like the fact he’s shown to be comfortable adjusting his role mid-game.  That is something that will likely be required in Miami’s new defense, especially with he skills of Minkah Fitzpatrick and a talented slot corner in Bobby McCain on the roster.  If Miami drafted Edwards, he should be able to carve out a nice role as a 3rd safety playing MOF duties or as another slot defender who is capable of blitzing.  He’s got a lot to like.

Miami may not be strictly in the business of finding a safety in this Draft either.  They’ve looked at a slew of corners up and down the Draft.  I had planned on doing prospect write-ups on a pair of corners, just like the safeties above.  The two guys I was planning on were Ka’dar Hollman of Toledo and Donnie Lewis Jr. of Tulane, but to be honest, there’s really not much available film to breakdown on them.  So, rather than showing a clip or two of each, I’ve got something else.  For the past few Drafts I’ve done a breakdown of the players the Dolphins have met with leading up to the Draft and tracked “Official 30 Visits”.

So, with that in mind, here are a list of the corners and safeties Miami have met with.  Keep in mind, these are just players that I’ve been able to confirm.

Cornerbacks
Deandre Baker – Georgia
Greedy Williams – LSU
Byron Murphy – Washington
Rock Ya-Sin – Temple
Julian Love – Notre Dame
Trayvon Mullen – Clemson (30 visit)
Jamel Dean – Auburn (30 visit)
Isaiah Johnson – Houston
Sean Bunting – Central Michigan
Derrick Baity – Kentucky
Jimmy Moreland – James Madison (30 visit)
Blace Brown – Troy
Ka’dar Hollman – Toledo (30 visit)
Montre Hartage – Northwestern
Donnie Lewis Jr. – Tulane (30 visit)
Xavier Crawford – Central Michigan
Jhavonte Dean – Miami
Rishard Causey – UCF
Derrek Thomas – Baylor

Safeties
Juan Thornhill – Virginia
Jaquan Johnson – Miami
Mike Edwards – Kentucky
Sheldrick Redwine – Miami
Corrion Ballard – Utah
Tyree Kinnel – Michigan
John Battle – LSU
Robbie Grimsley – North Dakota State

Again, Miami may very well (and hopefully has) met with multiple other players at the safety position.  But I would expect that Miami comes out of the Draft with at least 2 DBs.

Lastly, to close this one out, I mentioned this on the podcast and on Twitter, but I’ve been able to get myself more free time to write so please stay tuned for me pieces from me in the future.

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What an Ideal Draft for the Miami Dolphins Would Look Like

Gabe Hauari

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Get ready Dolfans, the 2019 NFL Draft is less than a month away.

While there hasn’t been much to get excited about in terms of free agent additions for Miami, the draft will be Chris Grier and Brian Flores’ first chance to put their stamp on the roster.

This draft will be huge in turning around the fortunes of the franchise, as it looks unlikely the Dolphins find their franchise quarterback and instead look to fortify the rest of the roster.

I put on my GM cap and went to work on drafting for the Dolphins using The Draft Network’s mock draft simulator. Since the simulator does not allow you to trade picks, we will assume the Dolphins pick only where they are currently slated.

Here’s how it turned out:

Round 1, pick 13 — Ed Oliver, iDL, Houston

With Kyler Murray and Dwayne Haskins off the board, I went best player available at a position of need and took Ed Oliver. With the defense transforming to a more hybrid look, Oliver will be the perfect chess piece for Brian Flores and Patrick Graham to move around and find the best matchups for. He is a freak athlete for someone his size and, in my opinion, easily a top 10 player in this year’s class.

Round 2, pick 48 — Erik McCoy, iOL, Texas A&M 

The offensive line is one of the biggest positions of need for Miami this offseason, especially after cutting Josh Sitton and losing Ja’Wuan James to Denver. Signing Chris Reed was a solid move, but the Dolphins would be wise to invest an early pick on an interior lineman. McCoy can come in immediately and start at left guard, and depending on how Daniel Kilgore plays next season, could eventually take over at center. With this pick, the Dolphins starting offensive line from left to right next season would be:

Left tackle – Laremy Tunsil

Left guard – Erik McCoy

Center – Daniel Kilgore

Right guard – Chris Reed

Right tackle – Jesse Davis

Round 3, pick 78 – Juan Thornhill, S, Virginia 

The Dolphins need to add bodies to their secondary if they want to emulate what the Patriots did under Brian Flores, and Thornhill in the third round is a tremendous value. Pairing him with Minkah Fitzpatrick gives you a young and talented safety tandem to build your secondary around. If the Dolphins are then able to extend Xavien Howard, the future of the secondary would look incredibly bright.

Round 4, pick 118 – Michael Jackson, CB, Miami

Again, Miami needs to continue to add bodies to their secondary, and Michael Jackson fits the mold for what this regime likes in their cornerbacks. Adding Eric Rowe was a solid move, but he is a bit injury prone and on a one-year deal. Jackson is a long and physical corner who could benefit from some refinement of his technique. Give him to new defensive pass game coordinator/cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer for a season or two and watch him develop.

Side note: No I did not forget about Cordrea Tankersley, Jalen Davis, Cornell Armstrong or Torry McTyer in this mock draft. You can really never have too many good players in your secondary, especially when your division opponents include Tom Brady, Sam Darnold and Josh Allen. Plus, competition is a good thing and should bring out the best in each of these young players.

Round 5, pick 151 – Jalen Jelks, EDGE, Oregon 

Jelks is an athletic and versatile edge player who needs to refine his technique. He represents good value in the fifth round because he can line up all over the formation and still has room for improvement. His speciality right now is his run defense, which is something the Dolphins have struggled to do for a long time now. Once he develops a pass rush plan, Jelks has the potential to become a solid contributor down the line.

Round 7, pick 233 – Jalen Hurd, WR, Baylor

Hurd is extremely raw after playing running back for a majority of his career, but he has good hands and can make plays with the ball in his hands. He will need to be taught the finer points of the receiver position (route running, stance, releases, etc.), but he is worthy of a late round flier, especially with Chad O’Shea’s background as a wide receivers coach.

Round 7, pick 234 – Terrill Hanks, LB, New Mexico State

The Dolphins have two building blocks at linebacker in Raekwon McMillan and Jerome Baker, but they need to find a third linebacker to complete that unit. It remains to be seen how Kiko Alonso will fit into this defense, or if he’ll even fit at all, so it would be wise to take a late round flier on a player with some upside. Hanks has the size and athletic ability to eventually contribute, but he must work on his technique and on the mental side of the game to ever earn starting snaps.

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