Full Breakdown of Miami Dolphins Secondary Ahead of Training Camp
The Miami Dolphins’ secondary will feature one of the more intense positional battles in the NFL during training camp. The team is looking to find a playmaking cornerback to start across Pro Bowler Brent Grimes, and it has a deep rotation to choose from.
By adding strong veteran presences in cornerback Cortland Finnegan and safety Louis Delmas via free agency, the Dolphins have prioritized leadership and toughness.
That being said, the Dolphins have added three very talented young cornerbacks in the middle rounds of the last two drafts.
This article dives into the Dolphins’ secondary entering training camp, including a projected depth chart.
Don’t forget to leave your thoughts on who should start this season below in the comments section.
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required) or sports-reference.com. All combine and pro day info is courtesy of ESPN.com. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac.com.
Secondary Depth Chart
The Dolphins’ secondary features a blend of veterans looking to re-establish their careers. Behind the veterans are talented first- and second-year players pushing to earn playing time. Here’s a look at how the depth chart for the secondary stands as we near the start of training camp:
LCB: Brent Grimes, Jamar Taylor, Jalil Brown
RCB: Cortland Finnegan, Walt Aikens
SCB: Jimmy Wilson, Will Davis
FS: Louis Delmas, Jimmy Wilson, Demetrius Wright
SS: Reshad Jones, Don Jones, Michael Thomas, Jordan Kovacs
Starter: Brent Grimes
Backups: Jamar Taylor, Jalil Brown
Brent Grimes had a tremendous 2013 season for the Miami Dolphins, proving he was fully recovered from a torn Achilles tendon in 2012. The Dolphins’ defensive MVP figuratively bet on himself by signing a one-year contract with the team after suffering the injury, knowing that if he played well, the team would reward him.
One year later, the Dolphins signed Grimes to a four-year, $32 million deal.
Grimes is a perfect fit in the Dolphins’ off-man and zone scheme, as he has tremendous foot speed, recognition ability and ball awareness. Despite his 5’10”, 180-pound frame facing much larger receivers each week, Grimes didn’t allow a receiving touchdown all season.
Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle might not get the same type of production out of Grimes as he did in 2013, but that is only because Grimes was that impressive. Opposing quarterbacks completed 60.2 percent of passes thrown toward him, but that produced a meager 66.3 rating. That was good enough for second in the NFL, according to PFF (subscription required).
Despite being beaten multiple times on deep routes by receiver Mike Wallace in June’s OTAs, Grimes is expected to shine again in 2014. His job will be more difficult this year than last because the quality of opposing No. 1 receivers in the division has increased. The New York Jets signed Eric Decker and the Buffalo Bills selected Sammy Watkins in the first round of the draft. For this defense to be successful, Grimes will have to be as reliable as he was last season.
Jamar Taylor enters training camp as the third outside cornerback, which is notably different than the slot cornerback. As an outside cornerback, Taylor is an excellent fit for Coyle’s scheme. At 5’11” and 195 pounds, Taylor has decent length but great fluidity in his movements. He’s been getting snaps as the backup slot in addition to work outside, according to The Sun Sentinel’s Omar Kelly, likely in case of injury.
Taylor was limited to just 45 snaps in 2013 due to a predraft kidney ailment and subsequent sports hernia surgery. But he’s confident in his health and on-field abilities as he enters his second year, according to James Walker of ESPN.com.
"I have high expectations of myself,” Taylor said. “I can't really worry about what everyone else thinks, as long as I get the respect of my teammates, my coaches and myself."
Head coach Joe Philbin said Taylor and Will Davis will have every chance to start, but they’ll have to prove themselves during training camp and preseason.
If he can continue the positive momentum built in minicamp, where he intercepted a pass when lined up as a starter, the Dolphins might have no choice but to elevate him on the depth chart.
Jalil Brown was signed after only seeing five snaps in 2013 with the Indianapolis Colts. He played a total of 371 snaps as an outside cornerback for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, but he was rated poorly by PFF with a -6.1 grade in pass coverage. He flashed the ability to make an occasional interception in OTAs, but he was also beaten multiple times for touchdowns. Unless an injury occurs or Brown starts to improve, he’s at risk to be cut after training camp.
Starter: Cortland Finnegan
Backups: Walt Aikens, Kevin Fogg
Cortland Finnegan’s signing with the Dolphins wasn’t received well by many pundits and fans. The former All-Pro cornerback struggled mightily the past two seasons with the St. Louis Rams, mostly due to poor usage and injuries. Finnegan was a lockdown right cornerback for the Titans in 2008, allowing completions on just 58.3 percent of targets and a passer rating of 61.6.
After signing with the Rams, his effectiveness disappeared as he moved to slot and left cornerback. In 2012, he allowed completions on 73.3 percent of targets and a passer rating of 80.9. Last year was even worse for Finnegan, as he allowed 76.5 percent of targets to be completed for an incredible passer rating of 136.
That didn’t stop Miami from giving the nine-year veteran a two-year, $11 million contract this offseason. The effort to rebuild the locker room came at a steep price, but there is reason for some hope with Finnegan.
In OTAs, Finnegan has reportedly looked very impressive, holding off upcoming young cornerbacks for the starting job. His physical playing style adds a new dimension to the Dolphins’ defense. With his eye and hamstring injuries behind him, Finnegan could turn out to be one of the steals of the 2014 NFL offseason.
Fourth-round pick Walt Aikens hasn’t made much of an impact so far in his young career, but as I touched on after he was selected, he isn’t likely to make an impact as a cornerback this year.
He’s a tremendous athlete with great size. His 6’1”, 205-pound frame will lead to playing time as a gunner on special teams. As he develops the nuances of cornerback, he will sit behind more polished and veteran players. Although he’s as talented an athlete as there is in the Dolphins secondary, 2015 is a more realistic goal for contribution than this year.
Kevin Fogg was a teammate of Aikens' at Liberty, and he is also a rookie. He has some upside as a return man but was signed after minicamp ended, so he has a major uphill battle to make the roster in 2014.
Starter: Jimmy Wilson
Backup: Will Davis
Jimmy Wilson sometimes seems to be the forgotten man in the Dolphins’ secondary, but he shouldn’t be. In 348 snaps as the slot cornerback in 2013, Wilson was PFF’s seventh-ranked player. He finished third in passer rating against, with a highly impressive 61.8 mark. His two interceptions and zero touchdowns allowed on 56 targets also speak volumes on his technique when guarding shifty slot receivers.
Wilson has also seen action as the backup free safety, so he might be moved around at times for hybrid secondary looks. His ability to break on the ball is an asset for a defense searching for more playmakers.
Since Miami played a slot cornerback nearly 60 percent of the time in 2013, it is fair to consider Wilson a starter for the defense. He should receive a lion's share of the snaps at the position unless an injury happens elsewhere.
Second-year cornerback Will Davis likely takes the backup slot cornerback position. After logging 65 snaps in three games last year, Davis has lined up all over the field in minicamp. The Sun Sentinel’s Omar Kelly wasn’t a fan of Davis’ performance in the slot in OTAs, but going back to his Utah State film, Davis’ traits suggest he’s best fit there.
When he plays outside, he is too aggressive and is vulnerable to double moves and head fakes. In the slot, his athleticism and aggressiveness can be major assets. He must be more instinctive now that he has the opportunity to get on the field more.
Starter: Louis Delmas
Backup: Jimmy Wilson, Demetrius Wright
The Dolphins allowed incumbent free safety Chris Clemons to depart in free agency in an effort to add a bigger playmaker at the position. They succeeded when they signed former Detroit Lion Louis Delmas to a one-year contract.
Delmas brings much more toughness to the secondary, as he enjoys making hard hits inside the tackle box on ball-carriers and receivers. Due to his aggressiveness, however, he’s more vulnerable to blown coverages. In other words, he’s much more volatile than Clemons. Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle agreed with that assessment, per James Walker of ESPN.com:
He is 100 miles an hour with everything he's doing," Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said of Delmas. "But he's a very, very perceptive guy on the field. He sees formations quickly. He communicates very well. He understands mistakes.
"Sometimes you have to reign him in a little bit, but that's a good thing. We rather have that problem than having to get him going.
He’s also an injury risk, missing 14 games over the last three seasons. For this signing to work out, he’ll have to replicate his snap count from 2013, which was 1,058 of a possible 1,071.
Although he intercepted four passes in 2013, he was responsible for allowing four touchdowns as well. He wasn’t surrounded by the same caliber of talent that the Dolphins now have, but that’s the risk/reward factor with Delmas.
What’s also interesting about his signing is that he is similar to strong safety Reshad Jones. He played strong safety for the Lions, so Coyle could be going with a mirror safety look.
If that experiment fails, or if Delmas gets injured, expect Wilson to step up as the starter. He’s played the position in past years and done a respectable job. The Sun Sentinel’s Omar Kelly noted that Wilson is becoming a playmaker in OTAs, which is important for the Dolphins’ depth.
Rookie Demetrius Wright is battling for the final roster spot for a backup safety as well. He must make an impact on special teams to stay on the active roster.
Starter: Reshad Jones
Backups: Don Jones, Michael Thomas, Jordan Kovacs
Reshad Jones had a difficult first half of 2013 after signing a four-year, $30 million deal. The Dolphins’ defense changed its approach with the linebackers, forcing Jones to cover tight ends and running backs more, and that experiment went horribly. In the first eight weeks of 2013, Jones allowed a passer rating of more than 100 on six different occasions. He often appeared lost and unconfident, causing missed tackles and blown coverages.
The second half of 2013 saw Jones start to return to his star status, though. In the final eight games, Jones allowed a passer rating of more than 100 only twice.
That type of production is still behind what he accomplished in 2012, but he still had 107 tackles. He adjusted how he was playing to fit the scheme and contributed where he could.
Entering training camp, Jones has vowed to practice harder in an effort to play better, according to Omar Kelly of the Sun Sentinel:
Practice is the key. Like [former Dolphins defensive coordinator] Mike Nolan once told me, 'two interceptions in practice equals one in the game.' I'm working on being more prepared and taking practice a little bit more serious," Jones said. "That's why coach sees the difference. I'm just going to practice playing hard and hopefully it carries over to the ball game.
The Dolphins must get Jones to become the playmaker he was in 2012, when he was arguably the top strong safety in the league.
Don Jones is competing for a backup safety position and special teams position. Quite frankly, Miami desperately needs Jones to step up on special teams. Jones finished his rookie season as the third-worst special teams player by PFF's grading. Since it is unlikely he gets snaps on defense, he is at risk for losing his backup job if he doesn’t improve.
His offseason scandal where he bashed Michael Sam on social media is now behind him, and he must focus on contributing to the Dolphins roster quickly.
One of the Dolphins’ stars in Week 15 of 2013 was Michael Thomas, who came off the 49ers’ practice squad to seal a win against the Patriots for the Dolphins. You can see my breakdown of his performance here, in case you forgot how well he played.
Thomas has experience playing nickel cornerback and safety, so his value to the defense could lie in his ability to play each position with competence. We haven’t seen much of Thomas, so our lasting impression of him might not be reflective of his actual talent. He will compete with Don Jones, Demetrius Wright and Jordan Kovacs for a roster spot.
Kovacs might have the upper hand on the backup safety position right now, as he played better on special teams than anyone else on the team at the position. The Dolphins lost gunner R.J. Stanford this past offseason, and Kovacs might be able to replace his production.
The Dolphins made bold moves by getting older in the secondary this offseason. Safe-yet-efficient starters Nolan Carroll and Chris Clemons were allowed to leave with little effort to bring them back.
By signing veterans Cortland Finnegan and Louis Delmas, the Dolphins are showing the importance of improving upon the 24 forced turnovers in 2013. It’s a high-risk move for the 2014 season, but the secondary as a whole has enough depth now to withstand poor play by starters.
The level of competition has been significantly raised as training camp nears. Expect fierce positional battles for both starting and backup jobs.
Ian Wharton is a NFL featured columnist for Bleacher Report, contributor for Optimum Scouting and analyst for FinDepth. You can follow and interact with Ian Wharton on Twitter @NFLFilmStudy.