Which safety for Dolphins offers greatest improvement to replace?

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Kyle Crabbs
·3 min read
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Several weeks ago, a report came out from Barry Jackson and Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald that the Miami Dolphins may be set to undertake a facelift to their starting safety group this offseason.

“A source said…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,” wrote the Herald.

“And the Dolphins love rookie third-rounder Brandon Jones and envision a prominent role for him in 2021.”

Any decision to make changes here would be quite the surprise given how much success the Dolphins had against opposing offenses in 2020 (sans, of course, Week 17). Miami’s pass defense was dramatically improved thanks to the play of a slew of free agent additions but also improved play from free safety Bobby McCain in year two of his transition from cornerback. Meanwhile. strong safety Eric Rowe had another strong season of play covering tight ends with only a few blips on the radar along the way. Rowe was posterized by Raiders TE Darren Waller and gave up considerable production to Chiefs TE Travis Kelce, but those are elite players at the position, so it is hard to offer too much in the way of complains.

Both players were net positive players for Miami’s 16 game workload. But if the team wanted to make changes and shake up the status quo, which of the two would offer greater improvement?

The presence of Brandon Jones and Miami’s apparent interest in phasing him into a bigger workload won’t factor in to either role — Jones’ role for the Dolphins defense in 2020 was a box safety and nickel defender. That overlaps to some degree with Rowe’s play at strong safety but charging Jones with masking opposing tight ends like Rowe did is not going to provide the Dolphins with a net positive gain; at least not right away. And while McCain has played in the nickel in the past, he was most frequently the Dolphins’ post safety in a deep third zone or as a single high safety. Jones does not have the experience needed to serve as the communicator and glue on the back end of the defense as the free safety; at least not without more reps and some assumed growing pains along the way.

So improvement in the safety room may come with an added presence from outside the current locker room despite the team’s reported interest in adding a bigger role for Jones next season. If anything, Jones’ added role may come at the expense of the linebacker group as more and more teams embrace sub-package defenses as base looks and play with three safeties to counter spacing issues and salvage run fits against today’s spread offenses.

Which of the two incumbents offers the bigger improvement potential? That would likely fall on Rowe if the objective is finding better fits against the run, an area that Rowe spoke about in the preseason as being a point of emphasis for him this offseason to continue to rep mentally and be ready for this season. But the greater coverage impact for Miami would come with swapping McCain out for another savvy, experienced free safety — as Rowe was sublime in coverage against tight ends not named Kelce and Waller this season (Rowe is credited by Pro Football Focus with 277 yards allowed across 58 targets in 14 games this season outside of the Chiefs and Raiders game…and 231 yards allowed on 16 targets in those two games combined).

So to answer the question of which safety offers greater improvement potential is less about the players themselves and more so about who the Dolphins plan to bring in to take their place.