The Miami Dolphins did everything short of trading for Darrelle Revis this offseason to improve a secondary that surrendered the sixth most passing yards in the entire NFL a year ago.
They signed a former Pro Bowl cornerback in Brent Grimes and used two draft picks in the first three rounds on the position. Improving the pass rush and, in turn, the pass defense, was also made a priority, as general manager Jeff Ireland aggressively traded up to the third-overall pick to nab Dion Jordan in April.
Injuries have plagued the Dolphins early on in 2013, however, as Jordan is just now returning after missing three weeks with a shoulder injury and rookie corners Will Davis (ankle) and Jamar Taylor (groin) are sitting out practice this week.
After everything Miami did this offseason to shore up their ability to neutralize opponents’ passing attacks, Kevin Coyle’s defense will enter Week 1 with Dimitri Patterson and Nolan Carroll splitting starting boundary duties.
Patterson impressed the Dolphins in training camp, which led to Richard Marshall’s release, and has fared well covering the slot in eight NFL seasons. But he struggled on the perimeter in the two years he spent with the Cleveland Browns in 2011-2012, surrendering 32 receptions and three touchdowns in just 177 cover snaps. That’s giving up a competition roughly 18 percent of the time he dropped back in coverage.
When offenses line up in three or more receiver sets this season, Patterson is expected to kick inside. Enter Nolan Carroll, who will begin the season as the team’s starting boundary corner in nickel and dime packages. The fourth-year pro graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 67th ranked cornerback last season, which is not starting-caliber play.
Carroll’s performance in a Week 11 contest with the Buffalo Bills last November didn’t do his grade any favors. Carroll was called for four penalties in coverage and was a big reason why the Dolphins lost to the Bills on national television.
Having either Patterson or Carroll or both on the field for most downs should be far from ensuring that Miami’s pass defense will make a huge leap this season.
Unfortunately for the Dolphins, the NFL is a passing league. And six of the game’s top quarterbacks that make it such are on the slate in the first eight games.
Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Joe Flacco, Tom Brady and Andy Dalton await. If Miami’s secondary hasn’t drastically improved this season, those six will surely expose it.
There are a couple reasons to believe it has, though.
Brent Grimes has been everything the Dolphins envisioned and more. He should provide consistently solid coverage on at least one side of the field, which is something the Dolphins didn’t have a year ago.
Also, a pass rush that was productive but invisible in big moments last season, is more capable. Second-year defensive end Olivier Vernon is improved and starting opposite Cameron Wake instead of prototypical interior lineman Jared Odrick, and Dion Jordan should be an ideal complement to Wake on passing downs.
If the preseason was any indication, the Dolphins will also be a much more aggressive defense this season. Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle has blitzed early and blitzed often, which, when effective, can certainly help mask any deficiencies in the secondary. But when opposing offensive lines can successfully pick up those blitzes, the secondary will be more vulnerable than ever.
Which is why, in my opinion, Dolphins fans should be concerned about the cornerback position heading into the year. To me, the starting boundary spot opposite Brent Grimes is the only glaring weakness in an otherwise formidable, if not elite defense. And lamentably, one weakness can give way to another.
Upper echelon quarterbacks will pick on Patterson and Carroll this season if the Dolphins don’t disguise their shortcomings with a fierce, relentless pass rush. And if anything happens to Grimes, Patterson or Carroll, quarterbacks and receivers could be playing pitch and catch on Miami all season, as depth behind the top three corners has taken a serious hit with the injuries to Davis and Taylor.
Currently, R.J. Stanford is the only other healthy body at the position, but Jimmy Wilson could also move over from safety. Stanford only made the team because the Dolphins are down two cornerbacks and Wilson was converted to safety full-time this year for a reason.
The Dolphins have invested an awful lot in the cornerback position for a unit that appears to be only moderately improved. If Miami doesn’t field a top 10 defense in most statistical categories this season, I suspect the pass defense, more specifically the cornerbacks behind Brent Grimes, to be the primary reason why.