Byron Jones can step in for Xavien Howard

Miami Dolphins cornerback Byron Jones (24) defends a third down pass intended for New York Jets wide receiver Breshad Perriman (19) at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, October 18, 2020. [ALLEN EYESTONE/The Palm Beach Post]
Miami Dolphins cornerback Byron Jones (24) defends a third down pass intended for New York Jets wide receiver Breshad Perriman (19) at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, October 18, 2020. [ALLEN EYESTONE/The Palm Beach Post] /

Fans had high expectations when Byron Jones signed his record setting deal in 2020-and understandably so. His first season in Miami was a down year, but does that mean he’ll never live up to his contract?

The signing of Byron Jones is being brought into question even more with the unfortunate situation unfolding around Miami’s star defensive back Xavien Howard. 2020 was a career year for Howard and a down year for Jones, but the two players aren’t as far apart as most fans think. In fact, there is a real possibility that Byron Jones out plays Xavien Howard in 2021. If we can get past the recency bias at play here, there’s a legitimate case to be made for Jones.

Jones’ struggles in 2020

Looking at the raw data, it wasn’t a great season for Byron Jones. We’ll be focusing on completion percentage/quarterback rating allowed, interceptions/pass defenses, yards per coverage snap, and deserved catch rate. There are plenty of other advanced metrics that could be useful, but we’re going to keep this simple.

Note: Deserved Catch % is defined as “the percentage of targets as the primary defender that the receiver either caught or dropped the ball when the pass was catchable.”

"Byron Jones201820192020Comp % allowed51.4%53.7%60.4%QBR allowed66.290.7102.5Deserved catch %73.6%78.6%82.5%Interceptions002Pass defensed1363Yds per cov snap0.80.61.0"

It isn’t hard to see that Jones struggled the most in 2020. To some people, it might even look like Jones is beginning to decline. When we break down how he performed in different coverages though, that doesn’t seem to be the case. To start breaking this down, lets look at what coverages Jones was on the field for in 2020.

"Byron Jones% of cov snapsCover 337.7 %Cover 136.7%Cover 49.1%Cover 07.5%Cover 25.2%Cover 2-Man3.7%"

Note: this data excludes screens and prevent defenses.

Cover one is the most common man coverage in the NFL and Miami ran it for over 36% of their plays. Cover zero (no deep safety-usually accompanying a blitz) and cover two-man (two deep safeties) made up another 11.2% of their defensive calls. Like all NFL teams, Miami also ran a lot of zone defense. Cover three was their most common coverage in 2020 while cover four and cover two made up another 14.3% of their calls with Byron Jones on the field.

Cover three and cover zero are where Jones had the most issues this past season. It isn’t surprising, as these are defenses where he has the most risk of giving up a big play-and it only takes a handful of big plays to tank a DB’s season. In cover three, he has a deep 1/3 of the field and in cover zero he has no safety help over the top. What is surprising is how clear the split is, statistically.

"Byron Jones (2020)Cover 3 and 0All other coveragesCov Snaps193234Comp% allowed68.4%54.5%QBR allowed146.371.5Deserved catch100%73.1%Interceptions01Pass defensed03Yds per cov snap1.30.9"

Pretty shocking, right? Cover zero splits will usually look something like this. Cover zero is almost always used on a heavy blitz and if the quarterback is able to get rid of the ball (and make it a coverage snap), he will have plenty of open receivers. His struggles in cover three are what’s most surprising. So, is this something that Jones has always had problems with. As a former safety, it would be odd if he couldn’t cover a deep 1/3 of the field. Let’s compare his 2019 and 2020 numbers in cover three.

"Byron Jones-cover 320192020Cov Snaps212161Comp% allowed44%66.7%QBR allowed63.9137.5Deserved catch60%100%Interceptions00Pass defensed50Yds per cov snap0.51.1"

We can safely assume that cover three is not something that Byron Jones is used to struggling with. In fact, his completion percentage allowed in cover three was 5th best in the NFL in 2019. At this point, we have shown that Byron Jones isn’t just washed up-he excelled in normal man coverage and zones other than cover three-and we have also shown that he can play cover three at a high level. That begs the question….

What happened?

There were growing pains with the new scheme, he nursed a groin injury, and just had some bad luck in 2020.  As I alluded to before, a handful of bad plays can wreck a defensive backs season and that is what happened to Jones. There are five or six plays where a miscommunication occurred or a blitz never got home. These plays came in cover zero and cover three, so Jones had deep responsibility. Miami runs an aggressive style of defense, so it can be very feast or famine. 2020 was a famine year for Jones, but that doesn’t mean it cant be a feast in 2021.

Film:  The plays that defined Jones’ 2020 season

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How does he stack up against Xavien Howard?

Xavien Howard was on a different planet in 2020, Jones wasn’t close. The million-dollar question is what they can both be going forward. To get a better idea, lets compare the previous two seasons (2018-2019).

"Jones (18)Howard (18)Jones (19)Howard (19)Cov Snaps612440541147Comp% allowed51.4%44.2%53.7%56.5%QBR allowed66.259.990.789.4Deserved catch73.6%85.3%78.6%77.8%Interceptions0701Pass defensed13663Yds per cov snap0."

Byron Jones will never duplicate the kind of ball production Xavien Howard has shown in his career, lets just get that out of the way. But outside of the interceptions, they have been neck and neck since Jones made the switch to corner in 2018. They get it done in different ways Howard’s success hinges on big plays and turnovers while Jones operates more like a traditional shutdown corner-but historically they are similar in caliber.

It also is worth noting that Howard was injured for portions of both the 2018 and 2019 campaign, which leads me to my next point: the best ability is availability. Howard missed 15 games between 2018 and 2019. It was awesome to see him put together a full season in 2020, but how likely is that to occur again in 2021 or 2022?

All advanced stats are courtesy of SIS Data Hub Pro


Howard was unbelievable last year, but the likelihood that he can repeat double digit interceptions is extremely low. The most likely outcome is that he comes back down to earth (somewhat) and Jones finds more success his second year in the system. If it breaks that way, Byron Jones could absolutely put together a better season than Xavien Howard in 2021.

The defense is unquestionably better with both of them on the field, but Xavien Howard might not leave the unfillable vacancy some imagine.

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