From 2011 to 2015, you could make a very strong case that, outside of the Cleveland Browns, at quarterback, no NFL team managed any one position with greater ineptitude than the Miami Dolphins handled their cornerbacks. There was the trading of Vontae Davis to Indianapolis; today, at 29, Davis has two Pro Bowl appearances and 22 career interceptions. The Dolphins' front office mindlessly opted to sign pencil thin wideout Brian Hartline to a huge contract and let Sean Smith leave town in free agency after the 2012 season. Today, Smith is on his second big money contract since leaving South Florida, while Hartline hasn't been on an NFL team's roster for two years now.
Here's why that's a problem: other than quarterback, left tackle or middle linebacker, no position in football is more important than corner. Well, unless it's the second or third corner; a team essentially has to have three starters nowadays. Week in and week out, game in and game out, corners are invariably the best athletes on a football field, maybe any field, in any sport. They have to do everything and anything a wide receiver can do, only better, quicker, more efficiently. And they must do it all with a degree of mental toughness that, for those of us who don't play the game, is almost beyond comprehension. This is why the top teams in the league, like New England, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Denver, Carolina, Green Bay and Seattle always have good corners, because those teams are in the postseason most years, and you're just not going to go very far in the playoffs if your guys can't cover the other team's guys. During the same five year period in which the Dolphins, outside of Brent Grimes, were trotting corners out onto the field every Sunday who couldn't start for some college teams, the aforementioned NFL powerhouse squads had a combined 16 cornerbacks selected to the Pro Bowl. While Grimes proved to be a real find in free agency for Miami on one side of the field, the Dolphins were so abysmally bad on the other side, and over the slot receiver, that opposing QB's were able to slice and dice the Fins' secondary with relative ease. Things got so bad in 2015 that Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald pointed out that with two games remaining in the season, if the Dolphins' final two opponents (Indianapolis and New England) were to attempt a combined total of seven passes, and Miami's defense were to intercept all seven of them, the Dolphins would still give up the highest passer rating since the franchise was founded in 1966. And yes, Grimes started 15 games for the worst pass defense in franchise history two years ago.
As we recently pointed out, of the ten offensive linemen who started in the Super Bowl this past February, only three of them were former first round picks. Conversely, in the 27 Super Bowls played since 1990, only one team, the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, did not have a corner who played in the game that didn't make the Pro Bowl at some point in his career. To be fair, not all of those guys who made the Pro Bowl were high picks; Richard Sherman, for example, was drafted in the fifth round by Seattle.
Unfortunately for Dolphin fans, the team had some General Managers who were considerably less enlightened than the Seahawks' John Schneider making draft day decisions for the team during the early to mid 2010's. While other teams were drafting players like Sherman, Logan Ryan (Patriots) and Xavier Rhodes (Vikings), Miami was selecting stiffs like Jamar Taylor and Will Davis out of college. Taylor, now with the Browns, in four NFL seasons, has just three interceptions. Davis, who somehow managed to pick off five passes in his final year at Utah State, has all of one interception to his name since coming into the league in 2013.
Thankfully, the Dolphins appear to have finally figured out that if you're going to skimp on talent anywhere on your football team, you don't skimp at cornerback; in today's pass happy NFL, doing so will virtually guarantee that your team doesn't win. You had better have two, and increasingly, three, good players at the position. For the first time in many a year, Miami, at last, has some guys who will make opposing quarterbacks at least hesitate before throwing the ball their way. Second-year man Xavien Howard, barring injury, is going to be a big time player. Contrary to popular belief, you don't need two or three seasons to evaluate a corner; it's pure athleticism and instincts. A player is either an NFL caliber cornerback or he isn't. Vontae Davis, two or three starts into his professional career, returned an interception for a touchdown, and later in his rookie year almost single-handedly saved a victory for the Dolphins when he picked off Brady in the end zone. Of course, guys are raw when they're coming out of college, but as Bill Parcells used to say, if they don't bite as pups, they won't bite. You could tell early on that the two players Jeff Ireland drafted in 2013 to replace Davis and Smith just didn't have the goods to be NFL starters. Jamar Taylor at least made a couple of nifty plays, but nothing that would suggest he could be a long term solution. Just as surely, when we saw Howard in action as a rookie, we understood why the Dolphins traded ahead of the Bears and Giants in 2016's second round to ensure getting him. On the other side, Miami should have former Seahawk and Eagle Byron Maxwell for at least one more season, and they have Tony Lippett, third round rookie Cordrea Tankersley, and the newly signed Alterraun Verner, as well.
As is the case with the offensive line, a staff must look at who their divisional opponents are when drafting or signing defensive backs. In the same way that it was foolhardy to switch to a finesse based zone blocking scheme when three of the most imposing defensive fronts in all of football can be found right here in the AFC East, so too was playing a soft zone defense in the secondary, when you're facing Tom Brady twice a year. Look for the Dolphins to play a much more physical, press-man brand of coverage this season, as the team continues its march back toward relevancy. It's an exciting time to be a Dolphin fan.