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The Miami Dolphins Struggled with Cornerback Injuries in 2022. What is their Best Path Forward?

The secondary went from a strength to a weakness. What should their next step be?

Cincinnati Bengals v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

There are a lot of things to be excited about when it comes to the future of the Miami Dolphins. They finally have a top-10 offense that is returning the majority of its starters and some young players on defense are beginning to come into their own. Mike McDaniel’s rookie season of his head coaching career is in the books and things seem to be looking up in Miami.

It would be easy to call this season a success and run back the majority of the roster expecting to make the postseason again. Maybe that would work, but there are a number of spots on this roster that need to be addressed for this team to take that next step in becoming a perennial contender. Which position groups need the most attention?

A Beat-up Secondary

We’ll start this series of articles by looking at Miami’s beleaguered secondary-specifically the cornerback position. This was the biggest area of regression for the 2022/2023 Miami Dolphins. For the previous two seasons, the secondary had been the strength of this team. This season it was a glaring weakness and was likely the main reason that defensive coordinator Josh Boyer was let go.

Whether that’s fair to Boyer is another discussion altogether, but it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to decipher what went wrong-injuries, injuries, injuries. When healthy, this has been one of the better units in the NFL. Miami’s blitz-heavy approach only worked because Xavien Howard, Byron Jones, and Nik Needham have been able to survive in single coverage. When Jones and Needham are lost for the season and Howard is slowed by injury, that all goes out the window. It also doesn’t help to lose one of your two starting safeties in Brandon Jones.

The emergence of Kader Kohou bodes well for the future, but it wasn’t enough to keep this unit afloat. Too many reserve players and core special teams guys were forced into meaningful reps in high-leverage situations. This isn’t meant to disparage anybody, but typically, guys at the back of the roster are there for a reason. Byron Jones, Nik Needham, and Trill Williams were all meant to play before Keion Crossen or Noah Igbinoghene were forced into action.

What is the Next Step?

Well, one option is just to run it back and hope that your secondary can stay healthy for the season. While Byron Jones isn’t exactly a fan favorite at the moment, he’s an experienced and versatile piece in the secondary. He played a more zone-heavy scheme in Dallas and excelled in that role (both at corner and safety). The Dolphins can designate him a post-6/1 release and save some money in 2023, but would then incur a $10 million dead cap hit in 2024.

If I’m an incoming defensive coordinator, Byron Jones is a player I would love to have at my disposal. The real question comes down to whether Jones’ relationship with the current coaching staff has been damaged and whether or not it can be repaired. Needham will be an unrestricted free agent, but Miami should be able to bring him back on a cheap contract if they decide to. Trill Williams, Brandon Jones, and Xavien Howard remain under contract and should be back for the 2023 season.

Would it be enough to just run those players back though? Should they rest their hopes on two (once-dominant) corners that are quickly reaching the wrong side of 30? There is reason to think a healthier Xavien Howard can perform at a higher level, but what should Miami’s expectations be going forward for Howard? It seems obvious at this point that he is unlikely to perform up to his cap hits coming in 2024 and beyond. Howard has been one of the best Miami Dolphins over the past seven seasons, but the Dolphins could find themselves in a difficult situation if his health and level of play don’t recover.

A Path Forward

A lot of folks want to tear it down and start over, but that is seldom a prudent strategy with a team this talented. If you get rid of Byron Jones, that frees up roughly $10 million dollars for the 2023 season. The move makes sense if you can find a better replacement for that amount of money. If you can’t, then what is the point?

If Jones is healthy, bring him and Howard back and begin investing in the position. The Dolphins haven’t drafted a corner outside of Igbo since Cornell Armstrong (a 6th rounder in 2018). You have some promising young players in Trill Williams and Kader Kohou, keep adding to that. Draft a corner with one of your first three selections and take a hard look at the second and third waves of free agency. If you play it correctly, this can be a smooth transition where younger players take over as they’re ready and your established veterans become less effective.

Final Thoughts

This is a passing league and you either need dominant players or a dominant scheme to slow down the better offenses in the NFL. The Dolphins came into 2022 with a scheme that was dependent on strong corner play and (to the surprise of no one) they struggled when they lost CB2, CB3, and CB4 for the season. How this offseason plays out will depend on who Miami brings in to coach the defense, but the corner position is in dire need of a facelift in Miami.