The Miami Dolphins are hoping that Adam Gase can mold the team into a playoff contender. The road to get there is not a matter of one big leap, but rather, a series of small steps.
When Adam Gase arrived in south Florida, he brought with him a wish list intended to transform the Dolphins. Yet, one item on his list, overhauling the cornerback position, wasn’t a typical request, but rather, an immediate necessity. After all, the Dolphins had ranked 21st against the pass in 2015 and, with the exception of safety Reshad Jones, were giving every indication of being a secondary in decline.
Of course, Miami’s inability to shut down opposing quarterbacks wasn’t all due to ineffective coverage. The defensive line did not produce the kind of pass rush many had expected, the linebacker corps endured a string of injuries, poor tackling was a constant problem, and defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle was fired shortly after the season began amidst signs of a player revolt. Still, the most shocking disappointment came from the unlikeliest of sources, Brent Grimes, the team’s perennial Pro Bowl cornerback.
For the majority of his career, Grimes ranked among the best corners in the NFL. Yet, as early as the second game of the 2015 season, many were wondering if he had lost a step. On that day, Allen Robinson, of the Jacksonville Jaguars, caught the ball at will against Grimes and the rest of Miami’s secondary. Unfortunately, for the aging cornerback, that poor outing would not remain an isolated incident.
While it could be argued that Grimes did not suffer an overall statistical drop off last year, there is no doubt that he experienced significant erosion in two key areas. The now 33 year old cornerback could no longer contain tall receivers or, worse yet, just about anyone capable of producing sudden bursts. Evidence of this change can be seen by comparing his results against the elite receivers he faced during both 2014 and 2015 campaigns.
|2014 Season||Games vs Grimes||Rec||Yds||Avg Yds Per Rec||TDs|
|2015 Season||Games vs Grimes||Rec||Yds||Avg Yds Per Rec||TDs|
From one year to the next, Grimes allowed Brandon Marshall, Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins an additional 8, 9 and 10 yards per catch respectively. Needless to say, it was a dramatic fall off for an athlete who had been rated as the second best corner in the NFL by Pro Football Focus as recently as 2013. More troubling still, Miami had resigned Grimes to a four year $32 million contract just prior to the 2014 season, including $16 million in guaranteed money.
However, long before the end of last season, it became apparent to the front office and fan base alike that the team had overestimated Grimes long-term value. In fact, the veteran had become so limited that he showed few signs of the vaunted closing speed and agility that had produced one of the most spectacular interceptions in NFL history just the year before.
Naturally, most people would have assumed that Grimes’ rapidly deteriorating skill set and declining value would have been enough to ensure his absolute allegiance to the team, but midway through the season, his wife, Miko, launched a series of scathing tirades on social media specifically targeting quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins organization. Needless to say, her rants created an uncomfortable situation in the locker room, particularly for a team looking to empower their young QB, not undermine him. Worse still, Grimes did little to discourage his wife’s outbursts
Perhaps Grimes felt confident that his position on the team was safe given the fact that he was named to the Pro Bowl yet again in 2015, but if that was the case, he was wrong. Just about anyone who watched all 16 Dolphins games would agree that his selection to last year’s Pro Bowl was due more to reputation than actual on field results. Additionally, given the fact that Miami allowed another five 100+ yard receiving games in addition to those by Marshall, Robinson and Watkins, no one other than Reshad Jones should have felt secure.
Odell Beckham Jr.
Moreover, the fact that Grimes had already been paid his $16 million in guaranteed salary made him expendable. Consequently, just before Miami finalized an offseason trade with the Philadelphia Eagles for cornerback Byron Maxwell and linebacker Kiko Alonso, Grimes was released. That move was met with initial skepticism by some fans, but recent events have made it clear the Dolphins were right to move on from him.
Grimes, who subsequently signed a two year deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for more than $7 million per season, faced off against Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns last week, and the results weren’t pretty. Gordon, who hadn’t suited up for the Browns in 615 days due to a suspension for multiple violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, had no difficulty besting Grimes on the only two occasions he was targeted. As a result, he finished with 87 receiving yards and a touchdown, meaning that Grimes permitted him an embarrassing 43.5 yards per catch.
Oddly enough, that game also featured another former Dolphins cornerback. Jamar Taylor, who was traded to Cleveland during the 2016 NFL draft, was matched against Tampa’s Mike Evans, and as it happens, he didn’t fare much better than Grimes. Evans caught a 34 yard touchdown that left Taylor completely spun around and looking silly.
Regardless, there was never much chance that Grimes, Taylor or former teammate Brice McCain, were ever going to be a part of the Dolphins’ 2016 secondary because, as mentioned earlier, Gase and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph came to Miami with a bigger, more aggressive vision for their defense. More specifically, they were looking for cornerbacks capable of playing the kind of press style coverage that requires jamming tall, powerful receivers at the line, precisely the kind of wideouts that dominated Grimes throughout the 2015 season.
Since McCain, (5’9”), Grimes (5’10”) and Taylor (5’11”) had already proven they lacked the height to contest passes against tall receivers like Marshall, Robinson and Watkins, much less, the strength to disrupt their routes at the point of first contact, the Dolphins were destined to move in a different direction. Not surprisingly, the team’s current crop of corners, Xavier Howard, Bobby McCain, Chris Culliver, Tony Lippett, Jordan Lucas and Byron Maxwell, all stand between 6’0” to 6’3”.
While the Dolphins’ new cornerbacks have the physical tools to match up against bigger receivers, there is a rub. Only Maxwell has significant experience. Yet, even he isn’t a sure bet.
A former member of the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom, Maxwell spent the first four years of his career successfully playing second fiddle to Richard Sherman in a press style defense similar to what the Dolphins plan to run. As a result, he landed a huge free agent deal from Philadelphia. Nevertheless, his tenure with the Eagles got off to a less than impressive debut.
On the opening Sunday of the 2015 season, Maxwell was torched by Julio Jones and the rest of the Atlanta Falcons receiving corps, giving up 10 catches on 11 targets for 179 yards and a TD. The following week, he seemed to quit against the Dallas Cowboys on a Terrence Williams 42 yard touchdown catch, and in week three, against the Jets, he relinquished another 75 yards on 6 receptions. While things got better from there on, Maxwell never appeared to settle into the Eagles’ defensive scheme.
Maxwell’s run in Philadelphia was so disastrous that he finished the season as the 93rd ranked corner in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). To put that fall into perspective, we need only compare his last two years in Seattle to his 2015 campaign.
|Year||Team||QB Passer Rating vs Maxwell|
Regardless, Gase, believes Maxwell can return to the form he flashed in Seattle, especially since the Dolphins will employ the coverage style he prefers.
“I think Byron fits in our scheme really well. What he did in Seattle was, he’s aggressive on the line of scrimmage,” stated the coach via the team’s official site. “And we want to try to do that as much as possible. That’s the way that he likes to play so that’s what we are going to do with him.”
That said, Gase isn’t prone to laying all his eggs in just one basket, and as such, he remains on the lookout for additional talent, even now that the 53 man roster is in place.
“I think at that position, you can never have enough,” Gase explained via the Dolphins’ official site. “We’ll keep looking. It’s not an easy position to find. I know there are 31 other teams doing the same thing no matter who is playing corner for them. When we were in Denver, we kept trying to add (players). They got three pretty good ones right now, and that’s tough to do. They’ve done a good job of that. We’ll keep working to do that. We’ll just keep trying to find a way to add depth at that position and find good players.”
To that end, there came the unexpected signing of former San Francisco 49er and Washington Redskin Chris Culliver. At first glance, the addition of Culliver appears a bit perplexing given the fact that he is still recovering from a torn MCL and ACL he suffered last November. As such, he has been placed on the physically unable to perform list (PUP). That means he won’t make it onto the 53 man roster until late October at the very earliest. Furthermore, he could earn as much as $5 million this year thanks to his incentive laden contract. Even so, the Dolphins consider the veteran a good investment because, Culliver hasn’t just proven he can play in the NFL, his statistics are nearly the equal of Maxwell’s despite playing in nine fewer games.
|CBs||Games||INT||Pass Def||Forced Fumbles||Fumbles Recovered||TDs||Sacks||Tackles|
After Maxwell and Culliver, the experience level of Miami’s cornerbacks takes a real nosedive, but that is where Gase and Joseph hope coaching and player development will fill in the gaps. That said, as we saw against the Atlanta Falcons this preseason, Bobby McCain and Tony Lippett have a steep learning curve ahead of them when it comes to press style coverage.
Here, McCain tries to make up ground on a deep route and draws an obvious penalty.
Julio Jones does a beautiful job of getting Lippett off balance to create huge separation between them.
Lippett, a former college wideout, then falls for a double move and is beaten down the sidelines.
Still, the prospects aren’t all bad. Far from it. Both McCain and Lippett have shown flashes during the preseason, pulling off acrobatic interceptions.
Then, of course, there is a chance the team’s two rookie corners, Xavier Howard and Jordan Lucas, will blossom more quickly than expected. Howard, who is projected to win the starting job opposite Maxwell at some point this season, was an interception machine at Baylor. He has all the physical attributes the Dolphins were hoping to find in the draft, as well as the killer instinct Gase covets. Fans, however, should keep in mind that even the best corners tend to struggle their first year in the league.
CBsGamesINTPass DefForced FumblesFumbles RecoveredTDsSacksTacklesXavier Howard
When all is said and done, given the fact that Miami’s current corners are a hodgepodge of inconsistent stars, injured veterans, and inexperienced youngsters, there are some who will undoubtedly question Gase’s decision to not hold off overhauling the secondary until 2017, when he could further bolster their ranks through free agency and the draft. That is a legitimate argument. After all, there is no denying that the circumstances are less than ideal. Then again, if one considers Brent Grimes’ continued decline, his outspoken wife’s negative effect on locker room morale, and the general ineffectiveness of Jamar Taylor and Brice McCain, the truth is, Gase simply had no choice but to act now.
Furthermore, Vance Joseph’s press style coverage scheme is a feast or famine prospect to begin with. Thus, the secondary is going to struggle at times, regardless of who is playing. Gase understands this and has come to a very simple conclusion.Rather than wasting valuable playing time on veterans with ever diminishing results, like Grimes. better that those bumps in the road serve to provide much needed experience to young players on the rise, such as Howard, McCain and Lippett. That way, if an additional overhaul is indeed needed next year, at least the coaching staff will have already had the opportunity to evaluate which youngsters are worth keeping, and which ones are not.
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