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Dolphins facing several free agent decisions in the secondary

The Miami Dolphins have a crossroads type of an offseason which officially begins in under a week when the franchise tag window opens on February 20 and goes through March 5. In previous pieces, this has been discussed regarding Christian Wilkins and whether or not he will be a Dolphin for at least one more year, long-term or not at all.

Once we flip the calendar, we look to March 11, when unrestricted free agents and their representation can begin discussing potential re-signing with their teams prior to their contracts officially expiring and hitting the open market on March 13 at 4:00 p.m. ET.

Also, a topic of recent conversation has been the free agency of edge rusher Andrew Van Ginkel, center Connor Williams and right guard Robert Hunt. As important as these players are for Miami to negotiate with and hopefully retain, the Dolphins have well over 20 total unrestricted free agents, many key players, or at the very least, talented team veterans who could make an impact with a new defensive coordinator.

The Dolphins have several decisions in the next few weeks beyond those previously mentioned names, who, in a nightmare scenario, will all be gone within a month’s time. However, as former Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson once preached – Re-sign your own good players first.

Having said that, let’s look at a few Dolphins defensive backs who could return or be signed elsewhere next season.

S Brandon Jones

Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to former Dolphins defensive coordinator Vic Fangio departing for the Philadelphia Eagles, I would’ve said that Brandon Jones had played his last down in Miami. However, with the new hiring of Anthony Weaver to replace Fangio and the influx of blitz-minded new staff members, there could be an entirely fresh philosophy for the Dolphins defense, one that could fit Jones’s strong suits.

Remarkably, a year prior to last season’s ACL injury, Jones was the NFL’s leading defensive back in sacks in 2021 with five. In a completely different blitz mindset from last season, in 2021, he was sent on 69 blitzes in 15 games played and caused 14 pressures with those sacks. Coverage, however, was an issue, yet that was on an upward trajectory prior to that injury last season. In his seven games played, his sack total was pacing similar if not more than 2021 at two, and his quarterback rating when throwing at was decreasing yet again from his rookie season. In 2020 that figure was 105.2, then in 2021 95.7, and in 2021 78.0.

In Fangio’s system, there were basically no blitzes, four to be exact all season in 16 games played. To put this to scale, Jones has blitzed more than four times in a single game 12 times from 2020-2022.

Another intriguing aspect of Jones was another move in the right direction in that coverage stat of quarterback rating. While not the end-all-be-all in grading defensive backs, Jones moved that number down for the fourth consecutive season, at 75.3 in 2023. He had a career-high in interceptions, which happened to occur in the same game against the New York Jets in December at home.

Diving deeper into his improved coverage metrics, his completion percentage as a rookie was simply not good at 80% of the 25 targets thrown his way. That number actually moved up a tad in 2021 to 81.8%, yet in 2022, it took a dip in a good way down to 62.5%. 2023 saw a similar figure of 68.8%, yet it was targeted just 16 times all season. He had a career-high with four passes defended as well.

With the new defensive staff looking like a blitzing bunch and very linebacker-heavy behind former defensive lineman in his own right, Anthony Weaver, it would be interesting to see if Jones could be re-signed and used more as a linebacker-type “jack-of-all-trades,” who can get back to pressuring the quarterback and seeking the ball-carrier, as he is a heat-seeking missile as a tackler.

Jones had a $3 million cap hit in 2023, and should Miami want to keep him home, could be a solid fit with the new defensive regime at a similar cost structure.

S DeShon Elliott

Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Elliott signed a one-year deal last off-season with Miami after time in Detroit in 2022 and spent three seasons in Baltimore, which creates more intrigue with the Weaver connection. Weaver was on the Ravens defensive staff while Elliott was there in 2021.

In 2023 in Miami, Elliott had a solid year. He had a career-high in passes defensed, with seven and one being an interception. He had 82 total tackles and played 94% of the Dolphins defensive snaps.

Elliott was PFF’s 28th-ranked safety and was a relative bargain last season at around $1.7 million against the cap. With fellow Texas Longhorn Jones being a free agent and one year left on Jevon Holland’s deal, suddenly, the safety spots are very much in question both immediately and beyond 2024.

DB Nik Needham

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

One of the odder and head-scratching scenarios of 2023 was the misusage or even lack thereof, of cornerback Nik Needham. It’s actually unfair to label him as just a cornerback, as Needham was worked with at safety throughout the season and just didn’t see significant playing time as he did last season prior to his own injury.

Needham suffered a torn Achilles in 2022 and trained hard to get back to work for 2023 under a new coordinator in Fangio. While nearing full availability in training camp this past summer, Needham was not available for OTA’s or camp so Fangio was not able to see him perform.

As seen through the season, and not just with Needham, Fangio became set in his ways and his personnel, so it was tough for him to get on the field consistently.

Needham was coming off of 2021 in which he played the slot, albeit a natural boundary corner, but with his overall ability, he was able to grade out as a top-end nickel defensive back. He didn’t allow a single touchdown from that area that season and played 54% of the snaps on the year through all 17 games.

In 2022, he was at 78% of the defensive snaps prior to his injury in Week 6 against the Minnesota Vikings. An undrafted rookie in 2019, he admirably filled in for Xavien Howard and played 89% of the team’s defensive snaps across 12 games, 11 of which he started.

Ironically, it was then head coach Brian Flores and former defensive coordinator Josh Boyer who gave Needham his opportunity, so if there is one team to worry about if you are hoping he returns to Miami, think NFC and the Minnesota Vikings. With Flores the defensive coordinator, it would not be shocking if one or two former Dolphin defenders of his end up in purple and gold.

Outside of the Dolphins and Vikings, there will be a market for Needham as well as Elliott and Jones. As mentioned previously, the defensive backfield safety depth could have the potential to be solidified for a few years or leave the room virtually empty heading into the combine and NFL draft seasons.

Story originally appeared on Dolphins Wire