Can the Miami Dolphins secondary succeed without Xavien Howard? – Phin Phanitic

The speculation surrounding Xavien Howard’s holdout tends to revolve around the return Miami could expect in a trade or how much money he desires.  The more pressing question should be whether this secondary can survive without Xavien Howard.

Chris Grier has invested heavily into the cornerback position since Brian Flores took over in 2019. Over 15% of their salary cap is tied up in their two top corners, Xavien Howard and Byron Jones.  That investment is because Flores’ defensive scheme relies heavily on effective corners that can survive on an island in man coverage. Without competent play from your corners, things can fall apart quickly (we all remember 2019).

Aside from missing out on the pass breakups and turnovers that X generates, how else would losing Howard negatively impact the defense?

The Domino Effect

We see this kind of thing with offensive lines all the time. One player gets hurt, then another starter is moved to fill in for him and a backup has to be brought in to fill the latter vacancy. Next thing you know, you have multiple players out of position and units tend to struggle. A similar thing happens when you lose your alpha corner.

The new alpha: Byron Jones

The first domino to fall is having a player step into Howards shoes. In this scenario, it has to be Byron Jones. He’s the most accomplished Miami corner still in his prime-not named Xavien-and also the highest paid player on the team.

If the possibility had been presented this time last season, very few people would have been concerned. Since moving to outside corner in 2018, Jones had made a reputation as one of the best cover corners in football. He earned a pro bowl and all-pro nod in 2018 and never allowed more than a 53.1% completion percentage into his coverage from 2018-2019. Jones had undoubtedly earned his pay day.

What we saw in 2020 didn’t quite match up to those lofty expectations he had earned. Jones wasn’t bad, but he unquestionably had his worst year at corner. Jones allowed a 60.3% completion percentage, 775 yards, 10.6 yards per target, 5 touchdowns, and a 108 QB rating when being targeted in 2020. Those were far and away the worst of his career.

Some of that had to do with bad luck, but one of the main culprits could be Miami’s system. Under Rod Marinelli (2018) and Dan Quinn (2019), Jones played traditional man coverages at a lower rate. This New England South defense is easily the most man heavy scheme he’s been asked to play in. Miami also blitzed at a much higher rate in 2020 than Dallas did in 2018 or 2019. This means a lot more press man coverage and a lot less safety help.

Byron Jones’ percentage of cov snaps in cover-0, cover-1, or cover-2 man

2018 Dallas- 35%

2019 Dallas- 28%

2020 Miami- 43%

Stats are courtesy of SIS Data Hub Pro

Don’t underestimate Byron Jones though. He has the athleticism and experience to turn things around in 2021, but if he’s going to fill Xavien Howard’s shoes he will need a major bounce back season.

Who replaces Byron Jones?

This will be the most difficult question to answer for Miami’s coaching staff. There are a number of candidates to fill this second cornerback spot, but each option is either young and unproven or past their prime. It doesn’t mean someone can’t step up, but it remains a big question mark at this point.

Plan A: Noah Igbinoghene

This is the scenario that would most please the Miami Dolphins and their fans. If Igbinoghene has taken enough of a step forward that he can be placed into a starting role and flourish, it will fully validate Chris Grier using a first round selection on him in 2019. There are also many reasons to be optimistic about his development.

Igbinoghene had a ton of success playing corner at Auburn and his best games came against top competition. The fact that Igbinoghene only started playing corner in 2018 means there is likely still a ton of room to grow into the position.

Noah Igbinoghene vs Ja’Marr Chase (2019)

4 tgts / 2 catches / 20 yards / 1 pbu

He had some rough games this past season, but don’t sleep on @Noah_Igbo9. With more experience, he can be a top corner.

Patience. #FinsUp pic.twitter.com/mGuf8kfrw1

— George Forder (@GeorgeForder3) May 16, 2021

He doesn’t have the ball skills or instincts of Xavien Howard, but his athleticism and movement skills are really some of the best on the team. The more time he spends playing the position and learning from experienced corners, the more comfortable he will be in the NFL.

Unfortunately, we do need to take off the rose colored glasses and be realistic about what we’ve seen from Igbinoghene. His time in the NFL has been tumultuous, to say the least. He clearly wasn’t ready to step onto an NFL football field against a player like Stefon Diggs, but you can’t survive in the NFL giving up 21 yards per completion. 

Plan B: Nik Needham

Needham was shifted to slot corner last year, but his best position will ultimately be at outside corner. Needham had his best moments while playing on the outside in 2019 and his lackluster athleticism is best hidden there. Because there is no sideline to contend with, receivers tend to get free releases from the slot. For a player with below average speed and explosiveness, it can be difficult to keep up with speedier receivers.

If Xavien Howard does end up leaving Miami, Nik Needham is a player to keep an eye on. They moved him to slot last year out of necessity, but his best position is at outside corner where he can be more physical at the LOS. #FinsUp pic.twitter.com/rDzxDZkwG2

— George Forder (@GeorgeForder3) July 2, 2021

At outside corner, Needham can get physical with receivers in press coverage, using the sideline to his advantage. Just a small amount of contact can slow down a faster receiver while throwing him off of his route, allowing Needham stay in his hop pocket. This isn’t to say that Needham can’t improve in the slot, we’ve just seen better play from him at boundary.

If they need to turn to Needham it would mean that Igbinoghene wasn’t ready to step up-not ideal. But if Needham were to emerge as a league average or better boundary corner, that wouldn’t be the worst thing either. At just 24 years of age, Needham could fit into long term plans and the Dolphins still have two years of team control (RFA in 2022).

Plan C: Jason McCourty

This impending hold out has to be partly why the Dolphins brought McCourty in. There’s been a lot of talk of him competing at safety, but McCourty is actually their most experienced boundary corner. From 2009-2017 he played almost exclusively as an outside corner, and had a lot of success there.

In his prime, McCourty was a freaky athlete and one of the better corners in the NFL. The only problem is that he’ll be 34 years old this upcoming season and there’s a  strong possibility that he isn’t that same guy anymore. His familiarity with the system and position could be enough to get him through the season though.

This would have to be the worst case scenario for the Dolphins’ coaching staff. If they have to go with McCourty, that means none of their younger players stepped up to fill the massive void left by Xavien Howard’s departure. There are definitely worse contingency plans than McCourty, but it would go against their current youth movement.

Conclusions

Xavien Howard had one of the most productive seasons for any corner in recent memory. If he does end up departing or even just sitting out, they won’t realistically be able to replace that production. Even if Byron Jones and Noah Igbinoghene both take steps forward to solidify the position, the defense will be worse off without X.

That’s why the real “Plan-A” has to be Xavien Howard returning. It would be great to see a young corner step up on the boundary-Noah Igbinoghene, Nik Needham, or maybe even Trill Williams-but there shouldn’t be any rush to push those guys into action when you have one of the best corner tandems in the NFL, both in their prime.

Here’s hoping that bridge can be mended. If not, 2021 could get interesting on the back end for Miami’s defense.