A healthy Brandon Jones could be key chess piece for Vic Fangio
The Miami Dolphins entered 2022 with a defensive backfield advertised as a potential top-tier unit within a unit. On paper, and on the strength of a 2021 season in which the defense helped Miami win eight of their final nine games, 2022 could have been another leap for the group, but last year was a tale of another secondary.
2021 had a defense that was manned by then-head coach Brian Flores, who despite an arduous exit from the team following Week 18, had the blueprint of his “zero-blitz” scheme left with defensive coordinator Josh Boyer.
Even though a new regime of coaches came to Miami in 2022, Boyer was retained through the shuffle. After a sub-par season, he was fired a few days following the Dolphins’ playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills. Boyer, of course, had to deal with not only a slew of injuries on his defense, especially in the secondary, but veteran cornerback Byron Jones didn’t play a snap all season due to complications in his recovery from Achilles surgery.
Jones, who was signed in 2020 to play opposite Xavien Howard, arguably didn’t live up to his expectations and will be officially cut on June 1, thus ending the three-year relationship between him and the Dolphins.
Boyer, who was the defensive coordinator with Flores for two seasons, and one last year with Mike McDaniel, is now out, and Jones is gone as well. In, are new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and superstar defensive back Jalen Ramsey, whom the Dolphins traded for in March.
Further adding some pop to the secondary was their 2023 second-round pick, South Carolina’s cornerback Cam Smith. Smith was a surprise selection when his name was written down by general manager Chris Grier and then called by Dolphins’ offensive lineman Terron Armstead, who was guest-calling the selection at the podium in Kansas City back in April.
Despite the initial surprise around Dolphin circles, when thinking about the significance of the Smith pick, it made tremendous sense for a few reasons. Primarily, the additions of Ramsey and Smith add to Howard, and second-year rising star in 2022 undrafted free agent Kader Kohou. Another undrafted free-agent cornerback is also set to return for Miami, that being Nik Needham. Needham and Kohou can be flexible as boundary corners as well as slot defenders.
With last season’s injury woes, a deep secondary is something Miami needs as necessary insurance, as well as thinking long-term, as they have a number of young players within the group to add to Howard and Ramsey.
In fact, all of Miami’s cornerbacks could be considered flexible, outside or inside coverage backs, with the exception of Howard. Even adding to the flexibility and the options for Fangio would be safeties Jevon Holland, DeShon Elliot, and another defensive back returning from a 2022 injury, Brandon Jones.
Jones was a 2020 third-round draft pick out of Texas and, in his first two seasons as a pro, showed promise for Miami. Excelling in 2021 in the pass-rushing element of his game, Jones was the league leader in sacks from a defensive back with five in just his second NFL season.
He had a great 2021 season overall, adding 79 total tackles (six for a loss), 10 quarterback hits, a pair of fumble recoveries, an interception and a forced fumble.
Jones was on pace for a similar season in 2022 before getting injured in Week 7 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Jones tore his ACL and, prior to that game, recorded a pair of sacks with 49 total tackles and even was improving in his pass coverage, which was an early knock on his overall game.
As a rookie, Jones was getting his NFL secondary sea legs, so to speak, and in his pass coverage duties, he yielded a completion percentage of 80% when targeted against and a 105.2 passer rating. 2021 showed a bit of a coverage improvement, with a similar 81.8% completion percentage and a 05.7 passer rating.
In a bit more than six games last year before getting hurt against the Steelers, Jones trimmed his targeted-against completion percentage to 62.5% and a much-improved 78.0 quarterback rating.
With this improving combination of coverage, and his ready-made ability to blitz, track ball carriers and deliver missile-like hits, Jones could excel in Fangio’s system in a hybrid role that’s prevalent in his systems.
The “Jack” linebacker, which yes, sounds like a name that may be confusing as Jones is a safety, is more a freelancer type who plays inside the box, where Jones specializes.
To play the “Jack” in a 3-4 set, you need to have that pass-rushing ability, and Jones has that nailed, as he’s been sent on 131 blitzes in his 38 games as a Dolphin, about 3.5 per contest.
Enter Fangio, and the potential usage of Jones in this “Jack” role, which in its description is essentially a pass-rusher or run-stopper with coverage abilities, so you get a jack-of-all-trades. Simply put, they’ll play against the run, rush the quarterback and drop back in coverage.
This isn’t a set position for him, yet an area in addition to his traditional safety role which could create an element of intrigue for Jones as a versatile defender with the ability to rotate with other defensive backs and share in the snap counts, thus keeping players fresh and healthier for what could be a long season deep into the winter.
In Fangio’s 3-4 that he’s utilized as Chicago Bears defensive coordinator and Denver Broncos head coach, you can see the outside “Will” or “Sam” linebackers rotating like edge-rushers Bradley Chubb, Jaelan Phillips and Andrew Van Ginkel. While your “Mike” linebackers are more inside or middle defenders such as Jerome Baker and newly-signed free agent David Long.
Jones, being that type of player who has the speed to rush the passer, the strength to shed blockers and hit runners in the backfield, as well as get better in the coverage game, could make him the surprising or hidden chess piece for Fangio.
Most can see or expect players like Ramsey, who could man the defensive back role in a variety of ways as well, to excel, yet Jones has extreme potential to be a valuable component in Fangio’s unit while opening up snap counts and playing time for Miami’s ocean-deep secondary.
In a league where passing is king and quarterback royalty resides in the AFC, a cornucopia of defensive backs isn’t only prudent but needed. Now, with the flexibility of players like Jones playing inside that box within the front seven in certain scenarios and situations, your defensive backfield could in that instance, be a combination of four of Howard, Ramsey, Kohou, Smith, Holland, Needham, Elliott, or even deeper with players in development such as Trill Williams and Verone McKinley III pending the down, distance and area of the field.
The options are nearly endless for Fangio, and the number of players at his disposal with positional versatility could create a deep, ball-hawking unit that would be a far cry from last season’s 24th-ranked scoring defense.
Jones has been reportedly rehabbing ahead of schedule and should be 100% heading into the start of the regular season. With organized team activities, training camp and preseason games still a bit down the road, Jones has plenty of time to get back to full strength and learn a system that could see him as what’s also affectionately called by some football people as a “Joker.”
I spoke to a source close to Miami #Dolphins SS Brandon Jones a few moments ago. The source told me Jones, who sustained a season-ending torn ACL to his left knee last season on Sunday Night Football vs. Pittsburgh, is doing well in his recovery process and is “way ahead of…
— Brandon Liguori (@BrandonRLiguori) May 11, 2023
Ironically, “Joker” is a moniker Dolphins fans have tagged on the young, budding star of what is shaping up as a fearsome defensive unit.
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