Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain were the last elite cornerback duo to wear Miami Dolphins colors. At their peak together from 1999 through 2004, Madison and Surtain locked down the sidelines, making it extremely difficult for opposing offenses to throw on them.
The 2020 Dolphins will attempt to replicate some of the Madison-Surtain magic with their newest top cornerback duo in Xavien Howard and free-agent signing Byron Jones. If it lives up to expectations, the Howard-Jones combination will be a scary duo for any offense facing Miami this season.
Byron Jones is pumped to play with Xavien Howard: “To play across from another guy that’s a top-tier corner, I think that will be a cool little duo for us.”
“The most important part is having no weak links and that’s what we’re trying to create in our defensive secondary.”
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— Cameron Wolfe (@CameronWolfe) March 26, 2020
“I’m looking forward to playing with all my teammates, but especially to play across from another guy who’s a top-tier corner. I think that’s going to be a cool little duo for us,” Jones said about playing with Howard.
The Dolphins have invested more money in the cornerback room than other position group on the roster — a clear sign of coach Brian Flores’ top priorities in team building. Jones ($16.5 million per year, five-year, $82.5 million deal) and Howard ($15.1 million per year, five-year, $75.25 million) are among the NFL’s top three highest-paid cornerbacks in average and total value. Philadelphia’s Darius Slay comes in as the league’s highest-paid CB based on APY at $16.7 million.
With great money comes great responsibility. Jones will be expected to take on a leadership role and help transform a Dolphins defense that finished 30th in total defense and 26th in passing defense in 2019.
“The most important part is just really having no weak links, and that’s what we’re trying to create in our defensive secondary and really the entire team, is to build a team where there are no weaknesses, where we can just guard up,” Jones said. “We can create matchups that are difficult for receivers and quarterbacks.”
In Flores’ multiple defense, matchups will be extremely important. Jones and Howard can defend elite receivers. Howard is the ballhawk who might be more effective against quicker receivers. His length and ball skills allow him to flourish on an island. Jones thrives as an athletic blanket-like defender, and he might be more effective against bigger receivers and elite tight ends.
Literally, no weak links.
An early projection for the Dolphins’ secondary could see Jones and Howard patrolling the sidelines, Eric Rowe continuing his strong safety/tight end defender role, Bobby McCain at free safety and promising 2019 undrafted free agent Nik Needham becoming the slot cornerback. If the Dolphins select a starting free safety high in the 2020 NFL draft, McCain could move to his natural slot cornerback position and move Needham to a fourth cornerback role.
Either way, expect a lot of man coverage. Flores’ defense played man coverage on 61% of the snaps last season, fourth most in the NFL. The Dolphins probably will play even more in 2020 with Jones on the field and a healthy Howard returning.
“One of the things that really made me fall in love with the game all over again; one, changing from safety to corner, but then just having someone in front of me every play. I love that. I love competing every single play,” Jones said. “Even if the ball’s not thrown to my side, I’m cool with that. Being a long, strong corner, I can move pretty well, I can change directions pretty well. That’s going to bode well if we’re playing a lot of man.”
Jones led the NFL in percentage of targets into tight windows at 50%, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Half of his 60 targets were into tight windows. For perspective, the next-highest rate with a minimum of 50 targets was 39% by Jaguars cornerback Tre Herndon.
A notable knock against Jones is his lack of interceptions. Jones has gone 40 games without one and has two in his 79-game NFL career.
“It’s a joke, the fact that I haven’t had an interception in two years. It’s bizarre,” Jones said. “In 2018, I had a ball hit in the back of the head and that was kind of embarrassing. That didn’t happen in 2019, so I am getting better. … Surprisingly, I do have good ball skills, but it just needs to show up on game days.”
Howard was the 2018 co-interception leader with seven, and that’s before having an elite cornerback opposite him. He is coming off an injury-plagued 2019 season, which ended after five games and required a knee scope on his left knee. The NFL is also investigating a domestic battery charge against Howard from December that ultimately was dropped but could still lead to league discipline.
The Dolphins are hoping a bounce-back season for Howard along with a dynamic Jones could give them the NFL’s best cornerback duo.
Plus, the Howard-Jones combination might come close to (or surpass?) those stellar Madison-Surtain days.