Thursday, January 9, 2014

Season in Review: Secondary

Throughout January, I'll be reviewing each position's performance for the Dolphins during the 2013 season, noting the good and the bad play and looking ahead at where the position stands for the 2014 season and beyond.

Relevant 2013 Ranks:
Passing yards: 3,752 (16th)
Yards/attempt: 6.9 (12th)
Completion %: 59.3 (14th)
Touchdowns: 17 (t-3rd)
Interceptions: 18 (t-10th)
Opp. passer rating: 77.3 (5th)

Current Depth Chart:
LCB: Jamar Taylor, Jalil Brown
RCB: Dimitri Patterson, Will Davis
FS: Jimmy Wilson, Don Jones
SS: Reshad Jones, Jordan Kovacs

Free Agents:
CB Nolan Carroll (UFA)
FS Chris Clemons (UFA)
CB Brent Grimes (UFA)
CB Chris Owens (UFA)
CB R. J. Stanford (RFA)
S Michael Thomas (ERFA)

In the 2009 NFL Draft, the Dolphins doubled up on cornerback by taking Vontae Davis in the first round and Sean Smith in the second round. The Dolphins dealt Davis to the Colts prior to the 2012 season and lost Smith to free agency last year, giving the position a whole new look for the 2013 campaign.

The Dolphins once again doubled up in the draft, taking Boise State's Jamar Taylor in the second round and Utah's Will Davis in the third round. However, Taylor was limited for much of the season due to injury and Taylor proved to be a work in progress, with the two combining to play just 110 defensive snaps in six game between them.

The star of the secondary proved to be veteran cornerback Brent Grimes, who was signed to a bargain one-year deal coming off a torn Achilles' with the Falcons in 2012. Grimes proved the injury didn't sap any of his ability and played at a shutdown level throughout the season, not allowing a single touchdown pass while earning his second career Pro Bowl selection.

Veteran Dimitri Patterson, who was claimed off waivers in 2012, showed why the Dolphins parted ways with Richard Marshall prior to the season. Patterson intercepted four passes in six games played, battling injuries throughout the season and eventually landing on injured reserve.

Finally, 2010 fifth-rounder Nolan Carroll proved to be a capable role player at the position, ranking 4th in the NFL allowing receptions on just under 48 percent of passes thrown his way. His season was once again marked by inconsistency with bad games sprinkled in between the good ones, but overall Carroll held his own and contributed a good amount for a mid-round pick.

While there is plenty of good to say about the cornerback position in 2013 despite the lack of rookie participation, the same cannot be said for safety. Chris Clemons performed admirably in coverage most of the time and remained an adequate starter, but the real issue was Reshad Jones, who followed up his standout 2012 campaign (and ensuing $30 million contract) with an inexplicably horrible season.

A year after grading out as Pro Football Focus' No. 3 safety, Jones plummeted to 68th. I can certainly vouch for such a grade, as Jones made terrible decisions in coverage, took bad angles in pursuit and forced five fewer turnover than he did last season.

Jones can obviously play a lot better than he did in 2013 and I don't know if the blame falls on the player for cruising after earning a big contract or defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle shaking up his utilization, but whatever was broken this past season needs to be fixed.

2014 Outlook

The Dolphins enter the offseason with a number of questions in their secondary. Two of the four starters—cornerback Brent Grimes and free safety Chris Clemons—are unrestricted free agents, as is valuable nickel man Nolan Carroll. Reserve corner R. J. Stanford (RFA) seems unlikely to be tendered (though he could be bought back on a cheaper deal), while Week 15 hero Michael Thomas (ERFA) is likely to return for camp.

I would expect the Dolphins to push heavily to re-sign Grimes, though the 30-year-old will certainly explore other options coming off a tremendous season and likely looking for one big payday. It would behoove Miami to try and work out a two- or three-year deal worth somewhere between $6-8 million per season. The franchise tag is an option as well, although Grimes was already tagged once with the Falcons so that option could get pricey for the Dolphins.

What happens with Grimes could affect Dimitri Patterson's roster status as well. I suspect the Dolphins will try to get younger and cheaper at the position if they keep Grimes, meaning Patterson could be on the chopping block. Despite impressive play in 2013, Patterson's durability is an issue and the team would save $5.4 million against the cap if they release him.

My initial prediction with Carroll is the team lets him walk, as there's potentially more money for him to be made elsewhere after showing some potential in 2013 and the Dolphins have two high draft picks invested in Jamar Taylor and Will Davis. Taylor was considered a steal in the second round and is basically coming off a redshirt rookie campaign, so it'd be a disappointment if he doesn't start during the 2014 season.

I do expect the Dolphins to pursue a new deal with Chris Clemons at free safety, who should draw starting interest in the free agent market but won't command a particularly cumbersome salary. Clemons have proved to be a reliable starter and keeping him around for consistency (and to avoid replacing him) would be ideal.