Miami Dolphins evaluating safeties, with tough decision looming. And a Tua evaluation

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Barry Jackson, Adam H. Beasley
·6 min read
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A six-pack of Miami Dolphins notes on a Wednesday:

The Dolphins — with pressing needs at wide receiver and running back and a decision looming at center — could easily just stick another year or two with the two starting safeties they had this season: Bobby McCain and Eric Rowe. For the most part, both were assets in 2020.

But a source said it’s not that simple, and Miami is carefully evaluating whether status quo at that position is the right way to go. As is often the case, there are financial issues that will factor in.

For the 2021 season, McCain is owed $6.4 million (nonguaranteed) with a $7.1 million cap hit. If the Dolphins release him, there would be $1.5 million in dead money and a $5.6 million cap savings if he’s cut before June 1 or a $6.4 million cap savings if designated as a post-June 1 cut.

For 2021, Rowe is owed $2.5 million (nonguranteed) with a $5.1 million cap hit. If Miami cut him, there would be $1 million in dead money and $4 million in cap savings before June or $4.5 million in cap savings is a post-June 1 cut.

Both had good seasons, McCain allowing a 27.5 passer rating in his coverage area (among the best in the league from a defensive standpoint) with one interceptions while Rowe permitted a 76.9 rating, picked off two passes, recovered a fumble and had 91 tackles.

But McCain and Rowe were well below average against the run among NFL safeties in 2020, per Pro Football Focus. And the Dolphins love rookie third-rounder Brandon Jones and envision a prominent role for him in 2021.

In one scenario, Jones could be projected as a starter and the Dolphins could move on from one of their other safeties in order to save cap space.

Jones allowed a 108.6 rating in his coverage area, but his speed and tackling ability impressed the staff.

The view here: Miami should keep Rowe, because aside from major problems with Kansas City Pro Bowler Travis Kelce (5 for 6, 106 yards against Rowe) and Las Vegas Pro Bowler Darren Waller (5 for 5, 112 yards against Rowe), he was generally very good otherwise against tight ends.

McCain played well, but the cap savings by moving on would be tempting if the Dolphins need to clear out more space.

Whether the Dolphins will move on from McCain or Rowe will be determined during an ongoing evaluation of every position. But while Miami could give them another season in tandem (and it could be justified, in our view), an NFL official in touch with the Dolphins cautioned us not to assume that the McCain/Rowe decision is simply a formality.

If the Dolphins take Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith at No. 3, who would make sense at No. 18?

Longtime draft analyst Dane Brugler, who works for The Athletic, projects Miami will take Michigan edge rusher Kwity Paye at that spot.

“The Dolphins received surprising pass rush production from Emmanuel Ogbah and Andrew Van Ginkel, but there is no such thing as too many pass rushers,” Brugler wrote. “Paye is an outstanding run defender and his twitchy lower body and relentless energy help him break down the rhythm of blockers.”

Among the players Brugler has Miami bypassing at No. 18: UM defensive end Jaelan Phillips (whom he mocks 26th to Cleveland) and Alabama running back Najee Harris (mocked 27th to Tampa Bay).

Brugler mocks Alabama’s Smith to Miami at No. 3.

Here’s how Pro Football Focus evaluated Tua Tagovailoa’s rookie season:

“When looking for positives, his pocket presence and manipulation really stood out. The Dolphins’ line, while improved, was still objectively very bad. Tagovailoa had to operate from some tight quarters, which was a wake-up call from his days at Alabama, and he still made plays.

“He got rid of the ball in a swift 2.52 seconds on average and had a good feel for the timing of the Dolphins’ offense. But it was not a scheme that did him many favors, and it was clear now-departed offensive coordinator Chan Gailey was afraid to take the training wheels off.

“Tagovailoa’s 65.2 grade on throws targeted 10-plus yards downfield paled in comparison to Burrow (87.3) and Herbert (89.6). He simply wasn’t finding the opportunities when they presented themselves and lost sight of defenders in coverage too often. It’s easy to chalk up plays like the one below to a “rookie mistake,” but there were enough of them that it’s worth monitoring going forward.”

Here’s more of what the website said about Tagovailoa.

Some neat stats from PFF: Xavien Howard not only led all NFL cornerbacks with 10 interceptions but also led all cornerbacks with four games in which he didn’t give up a single passing yard in coverage... Including PATs and field goals, Jason Sanders was the only NFL kicker who didn’t miss a kick under 40 yards this season.

Raekwon Davis was the only Dolphin on PFF’s all-rookie team.

PFF said “he finished the 2020 regular season as the highest-graded rookie interior defender against the run [66.8]. Davis spent more time at the nose tackle position in his first year with Miami than he ever did at Alabama. The only player to line up directly over the center as a 0-technique more than Davis did [216 snaps] this season was Poona Ford.

“Davis was able to take advantage of several of those matchups against centers as a pass rusher, as well. He and Christian Wilkins give the Dolphins a pair of young, highly drafted pieces along the defensive line for Brian Flores to work with moving forward.”

Three of the Dolphins’ six interview requests for their offensive coordinator job are now unavailable to be hired: Matt Canada and Mike McDaniel are staying with Pittsburgh and San Francisco, respectively — after being promoted to offensive coordinator with those teams — and Tony Elliott is remaining offensive coordinator at Clemson.

That leaves three known candidates to replace Gailey: Dolphins assistants George Godsey and Eric Studesville and Chargers QB coach Pep Hamilton. Other candidates could be added.

The preference would be to have a full staff in place by Monday, when the Dolphins staff will begin coaching one of the two teams in the Senior Bowl. Alabama’s Smith will not practice or play in the game, but will spend the week in meetings with Flores’ staff.