Sunday, July 15, 2007

Training Camp Positional Preview: Cornerbacks

The rookies will be reporting to the team facilities for training camp on July 22, so now is a good time to start sorting through the personnel of each position to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of the team as it heads into camp. These positional previews will also give us an idea of which training camp battles will be the most heated when it comes time to decide who fills those last few roster spots.

I'm going to start my positional previews on the defensive side of the ball because that unit is far more stable than the offense is at this point. First up are the cornerbacks.

What to expect: The defense is Miami's best asset, but if it has a weakness, it is the secondary and the cornerbacks in particular. Miami's group of CBs lacks a true shut-down No. 1-caliber player, and the depth at the position includes significantly more questions than answers. The ability of the unit to hold up against opposing aerial attacks, and especially Miami's AFC East divisional rivals, is going to be tested early and often. Let's just take the AFC East as an example of the challenges that await this group. The AFC East is jam-packed with lightning-quick receivers. The Jets have Laveranues Coles, the Bills boast Lee Evans, and the Patriots are endowed with the duo of Randy Moss and Donte' Stallworth.

Although Miami's secondary did not have to match up against Moss or Stallworth last season, here's how they fared against Coles and Evans:
  • Against Coles, Week 6: 5 catches, 106 yards (long of 58), 2 TDs
  • Against Coles, Week 16: 2 catches, 9 yards
  • Against Evans, Week 2: 2 catches, 19 yards
  • Against Evans, Week 15: 3 catches, 67 yards, 1 TD
Judging by those numbers, the Miami secondary has the potential to shut out the top receivers of their divisional foes, but they cannot and have not been able to do it consistently. Add the Patriots to the mix, who have two No.1-caliber wideouts, and it's easy to see the pass coverage breaking down against New England. It's one thing to stifle one top receiving threat, but when faced with two it becomes a whole new challenge. Here's some of the other receivers that Miami will have to face this season and their stats if they faced Miami last season: Santana Moss, Terrell Owens, Terry Glenn, Andre Johnson (9 recs, 101 yards, TD), Braylon Edwards, Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward (5 recs, 53 yards, TD), and Chad Johnson. Suffice to say, this secondary has its work cut out for it.

The most important unit to watch on defense this year is going to be the secondary. Obviously, the stellar pass rush provided by the front seven will mask some mistakes in coverage, but there will be times when the guys who are out on an island will have to fend for themselves. When that happens, don't be surprised to see some big plays given up.

Here's a closer look at the individual cornerbacks currently on the roster and what can be expected of them this coming season:

Will Allen
Will is the closest guy the team has to a true No. 1 corner, but he falls significantly short of being a shut-down player. His best assets are his blazing speed and his strong support against the run. Unfortunately, his weaknesses in coverage are constantly at risk of being exposed since he is matched up against the opposing team's best receiver every week and he simply doesn't have the ability of a Champ Bailey to shut out the best receivers all the time. According to the Miami Herald, Allen had 80 passes thrown against him last season and 49 of them (61.2%) resulted in a completion or defensive pass interference. That percentage ranked Allen 73rd out of 93 CBs in NFL last season. Oh, and he's hardly a threat to make a big-play by forcing a turnover. It's not all bad, however. Allen is definitely the best CB on the team and his support in stopping the run is invaluable. He just needs to work on limiting the underneath passes and positioning himself to make a couple plays in the secondary.

Andre' Goodman
Goodman was quite the pleasant surprise last season, and he quietly shut out opposing No. 2 receivers on a consistent basis. Only 27 out of the 58 (46.5%) passes thrown his way last season were caught or resulted in defensive pass interference. That mark was ninth-best out of all CBs in the NFL last year. Of course, Goodman is out right now as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He will not be healthy in time for the start of training camp, and there is some question as to whether he will be ready for the start of the regular season. This is the second time that he has had surgery on the same shoulder, and depending on how well it heals, the injury could cause him to miss time throughout the season. Missing a large portion of training camp and the preseason could also derail Goodman's ability to reclaim his starting role. Although Travis Daniels can most likely fill a starting role adequately, the loss of Goodman will have serious implications on the CB depth. It would force Daniels into the starting lineup, and the vacant nickelback position would have to be filled by Jason Allen or Michael Lehan. It will be very important for Goodman to make a full recovery in time to open the regular season. Without him, it becomes increasingly harder to match up against opposing offenses' second and third receiving options.

Travis Daniels
The verdict is still out on Daniels. He had a very promising rookie campaign, but his sophomore season was derailed by ankle injuries. He is healthy now, and it will be time to see whether he can regain his first-year form. I believe that he will. Last season, 28 of the 48 (58.3%) passes thrown against him resulted in a catch or defensive pass interference. Those aren't great numbers, but his ankle issues certainly played a role. Depending on Goodman's recovery, Daniels might start off the season as the starter. Training camp and the beginning of the season will offer him a good opportunity to show that he deserves to be the full-time starter. However, if Goodman gets healthy, I think he is the better option to start, leaving Daniels as the nickelback.

Jason Allen
Jason is switching over to CB this year after playing safety last season. So far in minicamps he has looked shaky at best. He has amazing potential, but that has yet to translate to the field. His tools are better suited for the corner position, so it may just be a matter of camp repetitions. It will be an ugly situation, however, if he struggles at corner. Hopefully, the team will start him off as the dimeback and let him get comfortable there. Then if one of the guys above him goes down with an injury, he will have to be ready to take over the nickelback spot. Training camp will be very important for Jason because his minicamps left a whole lot to be desired.

Michael Lehan
The fifth CB spot is going to be hotly contested in training camp. I think Lehan has the edge simply because of his experience in the system and his contributions to special teams.

Shirdonya Mitchell
Mitchell is Lehan's biggest competitor for the fifth CB spot. He's coming off of an NFL Europa season in which he was named to the All-NFL Europa League team. Before going down with injuries, Mitchell was a promising young talent, and his Europa campaign seems to indicate that he's fully recovered. If he is, I think he has a very good chance of beating out Lehan in training camp.

Derrick Johnson
Johnson had a pretty good season as a rookie, but his last two years have been very forgettable. He's going to have the opportunity to push Lehan and Mitchell, but in all likelihood he is going to be the odd-man out.

Geoffrey Pope
Pope was an undrafted rookie, so his chance of making the roster is slim. It's not impossible, but it's highly unlikely. He is, however, a prime candidate to make the practice squad. He has rare speed (40 time: 4.29) and pretty good size for a CB. He's also extremely raw, which means he could benefit from a year on the practice squad. He certainly has potential and his speed is special, so I expect the team to hold onto him as they try and polish his coverage skills.

Tuff Harris
Harris is most likely a camp body.


So, here's how I think the depth chart will shake out:

1. Will Allen
2. Andre' Goodman (if healthy)
3. Travis Daniels
4. Jason Allen
5. Shirdonya Mitchell
6. Geoffrey Pope (practice squad)

Training camp battle to watch: Michael Lehan vs. Shirdonya Mitchell for fifth CB spot.

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