Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition
Got it covered — maybe
Outlook in secondary anything but settled
Two years ago cornerback was a strength for the Dolphins, a lockdown position, a starting point for the defense.
Last season, due to injuries, cornerback was a question mark.
It’s tough to say how the position will fare for the Dolphins in 2023, or how deeply they might be required to dive into the freeagency pool.
There’s a good chance Vic Fangio, the new defensive coordinator, will have lots of input into how the defense is shaped, and what he thinks about the roster isn’t known at this point.
If the Dolphins’ main cornerbacks are healthy and return, the position is in excellent shape. The main possibilities there include Pro Bowl participant Xavien Howard, who battled groin injuries last season; Byron Jones, who missed last season after March leg surgery; Nik Needham, who was limited to five games last season due to an Achilles injury; and rookie Kader Kohou, who stepped in and played well last season.
Plus, Noah Igbinoghene, who has been a disappointment as a 2020 first-round pick, returns, along with Keion Crossen, a key reserve and special teams standout. Also, Trill Williams, who missed the season with a knee injury, should be back.
So optimistically the Dolphins could be looking at starting, say, the 29-year-old Howard and 30-year-old Jones at boundary cornerbacks, with the 24-year-old Kohou at the nickel/slot, and Needham (26), Crossen (26), Igbinoghene (23) and Williams (23) as top reserves.
But there’s a chance free agency, departures and acquisitions will interrupt that plan.
In that case perhaps a homecoming with a veteran such as Patrick Peterson is a possibility. The 33-year-old Peterson, who attended Pompano Beach Ely, played well for Minnesota last season and has a market value of around $6 million per year, according to Spotrac.com.
But Peterson seemed to indicate recently on Twitter he’ll return to the Vikings.
The franchise tag for cornerbacks, which can be applied from Feb. 21-March 7, is $18.1 million. The Dolphins aren’t likely to be vying for anyone in that cost range.
Teams can begin talking to free agents at noon on March 13. Players can sign contracts at 4 p.m. on March 15, the beginning of the new league year.
Although the Dolphins could return lots of talent at cornerback, there’s still a large degree of uncertainty.
For example, it’s not known whether Jones returns.
Jones, who will earn a base salary of $13.5 million in 2023, is scheduled to count $18.3 million against the salary cap, but he’d be a $14 million dead-cap hit if he’s released. His return is the easiest solution, but perhaps a trade is a possibility.
Needham, undrafted out of Texas-El Paso in 2019, is a free agent. He’d have to be re-signed. He could get better offers.
If neither Jones nor Needham is back, the Dolphins have two major holes to fill, which could lead to signing a mid-level free agent, someone who could start or be a top reserve for, say, $3 million to $6 million per year.
Taking the conservative side of things, you could say the Dolphins will return Howard and Kohou as starters at boundary cornerbacks, and they’ll have to figure out the rest.
Such a point of view would mean the Dolphins need third and fourth cornerbacks — the third to start at nickel/slot and a fourth for quality depth.
The Dolphins can’t count on Igbinoghene as a starter, and Crossen is probably best as a part-time starter. Williams, who showed promise before his training camp injury, remains unproven.
In that scenario the Dolphins might need to hit the free-agent market. But the draft is a viable option too.
The Dolphins lost their first-round draft pick due to tampering. Their first three draft picks are one selection in the second round and two in the third round.
Whatever route they choose, the Dolphins can take some measure of comfort knowing they’ve had a knack for finding cornerbacks recently.
Kohou and Needham were both undrafted gems. Howard was drafted. Jones was signed as a free agent.
For the most part, however the Dolphins have found cornerbacks in the past few years, it’s worked out pretty well. They’ll look to continue that good fortune for at least one more year.
Here’s are some of the top free agents who could be on the Dolphins’ radar:
Nik Needham, Dolphins: He played six games last year, totaling 21 tackles and two passes defended before being lost to a torn Achilles tendon. Needham has added value because he can play in the slot or on the boundary.
He should have a good amount of suitors. If he returns, the Dolphins are in a good spot to open training camp. But if he leaves, they will have a major hole to fill before training camp.
Patrick Peterson, Minnesota: The 32-yearold has recently indicated he wants to return to Minnesota, so you’d have to think that’s his main desire as opposed to a freeagency ploy. But perhaps Peterson, the three-time All Pro and eight-time Pro Bowl selection, listens to his hometown team.
Last season, his second with Minnesota, he had 66 tackles and five interceptions while starting all 17 games and regaining his form of yesteryear, ranking 12th among cornerbacks according to Pro Football Focus.
Marcus Peters, Baltimore: The 30-yearold had 47 tackles, one interception and six passes defended in his 13 starts last season . It wasn’t an especially successful season for Peters, who ranked 49th among cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, but he has enough skill and experience to offer some value. His availability has been acceptable, as he’s played 27 of a possible 34 games the past two years.
Kyle Fuller, Baltimore: The 31-year-old missed last season due to a knee injury, but he is familiar with new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, having earned Pro Bowl honors with him in Chicago (2018) and floundering a bit with him in Denver (2021).
In his last full season, 2021, Fuller played 16 games, making 10 starts, and totaled 51 tackles, no interceptions and four passes defended.
Eli Apple, Cincinnati: The 27-year-old would be a reclamation project of sorts. Last season he made 16 starts and totaled 49 tackles, no interceptions and eight passes defended. Apple ranked 68th among cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s started 30 of a possible 34 games the past two seasons for the Bengals.