If there was one big shocker about the preseason's first depth chart released by the Dolphins on Monday, it was where Vontae Davis was listed. Davis has been the team's primary starting cornerback since he was drafted in '09, and in this early draft of the depth chart he was behind offseason acquisition Richard Marshall.
Chances are it won't stick that way. Many beat writers are saying the coaches are simply sending a message to the inconsistent and distractible Davis. But would it be a terrible thing for him to play nickel?
Nickel cornerback is not a simple situational position in today's NFL—there are very often three covering defensive backs on the field. Will Allen, the Dolphins primary nickel corner last season, was on the field 64.5 percent of all possible snaps (via Pro Football Focus). That number may be elevated due to some of Davis injuries, but Allen had a good-sized workload each week.
He also got roughed up and was often a liability in coverage. That is the reason the Dolphins brought in Marshall on a three-year, $16 million deal this offseason and did not retain Allen.
Davis would obviously be a huge upgrade in coverage from Allen if he stayed as the nickel. But what benefit could there be to relegating Davis to mostly passing-down work and taking him out of every-down play?
The one area in which Richard Marshall shines and Davis struggles is run defense. In early-down and short-yardage situations, when running plays are more frequently called, it would be advantageous to have the effective-tackling Marshall on the field as opposed to Davis.
According to Pro Football Focus, Marshall ranked 20th in tackling efficiency, which is a rating based on number of attempted and missed tackles. Davis was close to the bottom of qualifying cornerbacks, at 57th. Marshall was heavily involved and effective in run defense, and that could be a reason why he should be opposite Sean Smith on early downs.
The obvious next question: how big of a drop off would Miami have in coverage if Marshall was substituted for Davis?
Davis is a very good, if not great, coverage cornerback. More often than not he takes the other team's best guy and (usually) does a fine job. If he was off the field for early downs, would opposing teams be able to take advantage?
Last season Richard Marshall was targeted in pass coverage 54 times. Opposing QBs had a 64.9 rating when throwing in his direction, and scored two touchdowns. Davis gave up a 68.8 QB rating on 66 targets and three touchdowns (via Pro Football Focus).
Statistically, that's not a drop off at all. Of course, that ignores a number of important factors and the fact that Marshall played mostly in the slot, which typically features different receivers than a primary corner.
The point isn't that Miami should in fact make this switch, but when analyzing it logically it doesn't seem like an outlandish idea if they did. Davis is a great player and the best coverage defensive back that Miami has. If the Dolphins coaches decide this is a way to use all of their players' best strengths, then at least it makes a little sense.