The Miami Dolphins featured one of the league’s best secondaries in 2020 and most of those players are returning for the 2021 season.
Opposing quarterbacks completed roughly 63 percent of passes, the league’s eighth-best mark, and Miami’s secondary held opponents to 1.3 passing touchdowns per game, the league’s second-best mark.
Despite the positional success in 2020, it didn’t stop general manager Chris Grier from making moves to the unit. The team decided to move on from starting safety Bobby McCain, acquire cornerbacks Jason McCourty and Justin Coleman in free agency and draft safety Jevon Holland with the No. 36 pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
Defensively, the Miami Dolphins played 998 snaps in 2020. McCain was on the field for 923 snaps and fellow safety Eric Rowe registered 919 plays last season.
“At the end of the year, teams are always switching out players, adding players, letting go of players,” Rowe said on Wednesday regarding the discussion to move on from McCain. “That’s just the business side, so I really can’t say much on that. I’m not upstairs making roster moves.”
The 92 percent of snaps played by McCain will have to be replaced and in early June, it looks like Holland may get an opportunity to start as a rookie.
“He is athletic. He has nice size; and then I’ve talked to him and he’s a smart guy,” Rowe said. “He’s picking up the defense pretty fast. We’re just doing walkthroughs right now, but I see him picking things up pretty quick.”
Aside from McCain’s role as the team’s free safety, every player to log at least 220 snaps in Miami’s secondary last season is scheduled to be on the team in 2021 — at the moment.
The Dolphins wouldn’t have brought in McCourty and Coleman if they didn’t believe the secondary could improve on last year’s success. Some players get better and others get worse (breaking news, I know) and the unit could look a bit different as the league evolves.
It is hard to imagine a world where Rowe, Xavien Howard and Byron Jones are not starting for the Dolphins. After that, though, competition will decide who will suit up on game day.
Former third-round pick Brandon Jones received his fair share of snaps in 2020, cracking 40 percent of snaps eight times. Keep in mind, head coach Brian Flores loves flexibility and often used packages that feature six, maybe even seven, defensive backs.
Brandon Jones saw his snaps fall to 25 percent in Week 16 and 20 percent in Week 17 with Clayton Fejedelem playing nearly 50 percent of snaps in each week. Kavon Frazier also saw his snap-count rise, playing 38 percent of snaps in Weeks 16 and 17.
In his second year, Brandon Jones could make the jump to full-time starter, beating out Holland for the team’s starting strong safety job. At the same time, the Miami Dolphins could use McCourty as an option at safety and Fejedelem remains on the roster.
Brandon Jones is trending in the right direction but saw his snaps drop late in the season. It is also possible that his fate is similar to what former first-round pick Noah Igbinoghene dealt with in 2020, an uphill battle with too many talented players without enough snaps to go around.
Speaking of Igbinoghene, he played at least 40 percent of snaps in six different games and hit a few bumps on the road during that time. Igbinoghene, who played at least 60 percent of snaps in the season’s first four weeks, didn’t play more than 47 percent of snaps in a game over the remainder of the season.
Making the transition from college to the NFL at cornerback isn’t an easy task and things could be easier for Igbinoghene, 21, in his second season. While he may not push Byron Jones or Howard (crazier things have happened), could the former first-round pick make the jump and push for the role of slot cornerback?
Nik Needham was the team’s slot for most of the 2020 season, playing at least 50 percent of the team’s snaps in 13 games last season. With Needham set to return and Coleman joining the franchise as a career slot-corner, this is another position that may not be decided until late August.
While most think of the receivers when talking about training camp battles, the Dolphins continue using assets to bolster an already impressive secondary. Most of the team’s defensive backs are returning from last season, but competition could push a variety of changes this summer.