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Byron Maxwell in Great Spot to Revitalize Career with Miami Dolphins

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyContributor IMarch 18, 2016

Philadelphia Eagles' Byron Maxwell (31) reacts after a play against the Carolina Panthers in the first half of  an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Oct. 25, 2015. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)
Bob Leverone/Associated Press

The 2016 NFL offseason has already brought a whirlwind of change throughout the league. The free-agency period proved business is booming, as over $1 billion in contract dollars were given in the first week. But the free-agent market wasn’t the only way franchises upgraded their rosters.

Instead of resorting to free agency to make a splash, the Miami Dolphins acquired cornerback Byron Maxwell and linebacker Kiko Alonso from the Philadelphia Eagles by swapping first-round picks.

The move was shocking because player trades are uncommon, and the two individuals were major acquisitions for Philadelphia just one year ago. Both were considered disappointments with their former team, and Eagles general manager Howie Roseman unloaded them to open cap space and move up in the draft.

Miami’s perspective on the deal also made sense. It acquired two starting pieces at positions of great need and kept seven draft picks. Moving down five spots in the first round was the equivalent of netting an early third-round pick, but getting a proven starter in Maxwell and taking a flier on Alonso was far from an overpay.

The Dolphins weren’t going to be major players in free agency because their available cap space paled in comparison to more frugal teams. Resorting to a trade allowed the team to operate with comfort since the contracts were already established.

The deal also allowed Miami to add players without affecting its potential compensatory-pick haul in 2017 for losing running back Lamar Miller and defensive ends Olivier Vernon and Derrick Shelby.

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Keeping it in terms of what Miami accomplished in the deal, the Dolphins will walk away from this offseason with Maxwell, Alonso, the 13th overall pick and multiple compensatory picks in 2017. Maxwell (28) and Alonso (25) are still young enough to fit the Dolphins' long-term plans as well.

Maxwell is especially notable, as he replaces the aging and declining Brent Grimes for a defense needing athleticism and youth.

He was a major free agent this time last year because of his solid play in the Seattle Seahawks’ infamous Cover 3 defense. The Eagles pounced on the opportunity to add a 6’1”, 202-pound cornerback who ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash and logged six interceptions in the prior two years.

His six-year, $63 million contract was bloated because of the back-end dollars that weren’t guaranteed, and it placed high expectations on him as he entered a new situation.

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The results of the move were disappointing considering Maxwell was the 12th-highest-paid cornerback in 2015. Poor individual performances against the Atlanta FalconsJulio Jones and the Buffalo Bills' Sammy Watkins at the start and end of the season, respectively, left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.

After going back to the film and studying Maxwell’s performance in 2014 and 2015, I’m confident his move to Miami is a great chance to revitalize his career and image. His skill set, role and alignment will benefit from Miami’s defensive scheme as opposed to what Philadelphia tried for large stretches.

Maxwell will no longer be asked to shadow top receivers in man coverage or play as the left cornerback in zone. After going through his Seattle film in 2014, Maxwell was always at right cornerback and specialized in a mixture of Cover 2, Cover 3 and Cover 4 zone. His blend of length and speed made him a difficult corner to beat for chunk yardage.

To see just how well Maxwell performed in the two schemes, I took an eight-game sample of games in 2015 to chart and compare against a 16-game sample in 2014. You can learn more about the project, my methodology and the 2014 results at Draft Centric.

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Here’s what the study boiled down to: How often does a cornerback provide quality coverage throughout the sample against top opponents? It’s subjective, but the project isolates the cornerback from the defense and level of competition.

Forcing a difficult catch or staying within an arm length of the receiver through the apex of the route likely earns a win because contested catches reduce the chances of success for the offense. It also helps show where a player excels and struggles in terms of alignment and defending the route tree.

Byron Maxwell 2014 and 2015 Coverage Productivity
Route DefendedLosses in 2014Total Routes in 2014Burn Percentage in 2014Losses in 2015Total Routes in 2015Burn Percentage in 2015
Cross2633%4666%
Quick In-Out2825%2633%
Slant6786%3743%
Comeback31127%51145%
Curl102245%21712%
Deep Out4850%4750%
Dig3560%060%
Corner020%11100%
Post2729%2366%
Go42317%42218%
Cumulative349934%278731%
Draft Centric

The first notable difference in the chart above is the amount of qualifying routes between the two years. I had time to look at every snap in 2014, and only 99 routes were man coverage or zone where Maxwell could do more than just cover his zone. He had 87 qualifying routes in just eight games for the Eagles.

This helps represent how poorly the Eagles utilized Maxwell’s strengths. He was exposed to sharp-cutting routes more often in man, and his stiff hips and heavy feet were not fit for that assignment. It’s one reason he struggled so much against inside releases.

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His matchup with Jones in the season opener set the stage for negativity to swallow Maxwell’s time in Philadelphia. Jones, arguably the best receiver in the NFL, smoked Maxwell for most of the game. While Maxwell had the occasional win, such as the play below, he’s not one of the few cornerbacks who can athletically match what Jones brings to the table.

The Eagles adjusted to Maxwell losing eight of his 16 routes in Week 1 and used him more in zone the rest of the season. It immediately paid off, as he lost just 14 routes in the next five weeks combined. His effectiveness was on par with what quality top cornerbacks produce because he was simply put in the position to better succeed.

This will fit Miami’s scheme under defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who coached the Cincinnati Bengals secondary the last two years. According to Pro Football Focus analyst Steve Palazzolo, the Bengals played the second-highest percentage of Cover 2 last season. Cover 2 will allow Maxwell to utilize his press ability without asking him to cover in-breaking routes.

@NFLFilmStudy Bengals played second-highest percentage of cover-2 last year

— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) March 9, 2016

Keeping Maxwell playing vertically and not horizontally must be a priority for the Dolphins, and Joseph has worked with similarly limited players like Leon Hall, Adam Jones and Terence Newman. This is similar to how the Carolina Panthers use Josh Norman, as well. Providing safety help over the top and linebacker support in the middle of the field helps shrink passing windows.

Exposing Maxwell to an abundance of man coverage will lead to holding penalties. His foot speed just isn’t good enough to smother the entire route tree. He was called for the sixth-most penalty yards per game among defensive backs because he’s grabby when beat off the line.

An area Maxwell improved at in 2015 was his off-ball coverage. He’s a capable roamer and reads the play well as it develops. Several times through the season, he closed on the ball as it arrived to end a drive. Below, he successfully defended a curl route against the New Orleans Saints.

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His performance against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 9 featured a good outing facing Dez Bryant but also this third-down stop. The quick-hitch route created a one-on-one situation with Cole Beasley, but Maxwell crashed quickly and forced a punt.

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In total, Maxwell’s coverage score improved from 2014 to 2015, which certainly goes against the public narrative. His biggest struggle in coverage was with how many penalties he was called for. That number should drop with the Dolphins just as a result of the scheme change.

Maxwell hasn’t reached the potential his size or contract would suggest he has, though. He struggles finishing as a tackler, at times even looking lazy. Plays like the one below simply happen too often.

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Maxwell is a good starting cornerback even in a defense that is a poor fit for him. He proved that in 2015 with a coverage score that grades him as a high-end No. 2 cornerback. Replicating his level of play for the Dolphins in a more advantageous situation can elevate him to a career-best season in 2016.

It’s hard for some to separate Maxwell because of the $63 million deal he received. The total number has a major sticker-shock effect that looms over his head. But his deal is palatable considering how the cap has risen significantly in the last two years.

On Byron Maxwell's restructure: Gave #Dolphins back $1.5M in cash in '17 in exchange for $2M more guaranteed in 17, likely keeping him there

— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 11, 2016

According to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, Maxwell restructured his contract to lower his cap number in exchange for 2017 roster security. He’ll be a Dolphins cornerback for the next two years, then his contract can be terminated before it jumps in value.

With an $8.5 million cap hit in 2016, he’ll be the 17th-highest-paid cornerback this year. His cap hit stays the same next season, then jumps to $10 million as he hits 30 years old. He’s certainly a top-20 cornerback in the NFL and is paid accordingly. The narrative that he is overpaid is simply based off the back end of a contract that is unlikely to be fully realized.

The Dolphins may not have acquired a superstar cornerback, but they did get a solid starter who fits their defense. Instead of forcing a square peg in a round hole, they identified who was available for a swap of assets. This deal was good for both teams, and Miami could come away the winner if Alonso regains his explosiveness.

 

All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com

Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. 

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