Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Training Camp Roster Breakdown 2009: Cornerbacks

Next up in the positional previews are the cornerbacks.

And before I even begin with this group, it should be noted that I wasn't even going to pick Eric Green to make this team. The team just beat me to the punch before I could put that prediction in writing. Oh well, anyone who's been reading me since Green was signed knows where I was coming from on that end.

Anyways...on to the guys who actually have a shot:

Jason Allen
After impressing in the latter half of 2007, it seemed like Jason Allen was finally in line for more playing time. However, that wasn't meant to be as the new coaching staff moved him permanently to cornerback and he reverted back to the bottom of the depth chart. Sometimes I just don't understand the coaches' handling of Jason. Yes, we can all admit that he is a bust as a No. 1 pick, but that doesn't mean he is useless. In fact, when he actually does find some small pockets of playing time, he looks decent. I can't believe that he was truly a worse option than Joey Thomas to use last year in most any situation. Jason has obvious flaws. He is one of the worst run-defending defensive backs in the league, surprising given his size and physicality. And he has a penchant for giving up big pass plays. But he did make a noticeable improvement in that area last year, going from 12.3 Adjusted Yards Allowed on passes targeted at him in 2007, to 9.4 AdjYds in 2008. Now, that's still not a good number, but it was a big improvement, and with a permanent move to CB, it wouldn't be surprising to see him continue to get a little better. What Jason does bring to the table is the ability to be a playmaker off the bench. In his very limited playing time over his first three years, Jason has recorded 5 interceptions, the same as Will Allen has snagged in the last four years while starting every game but one. If we admit that Jason's not a top-3 CB, then maybe we can all adjust our expectations of him. Once you get to your fourth or fifth CB, you aren't going to be getting a lock-down guy. But at least if Jason needs to come into the game he can make a play for this defense. And, perhaps most importantly, Jason's a special teams maven. He tied Patrick Cobbs for the team lead in special teams tackles last year with 16.

Will Allen
Will Allen continued with his strong play in 2008, helping Miami to post a -7.2% DVOA vs. #1 WRs. That was good for 9th best in the league. His individual metrics were so good in 2007, however, that they were bound to regress a bit last season. His success rate in coverage fell from 56% to 52%, and his AdjYds allowed rose from 5.9 to 7.8. He made up for it some by tallying a whopping 18 PDs and 3 Ints. He's still a No. 1 corner though, and the team showed their faith in him by extending his contract for another two years. Even so, the team wisely hedged its bets against a decline by drafting two CBs in the first two rounds. Will Allen is 31 years old this year so it can't be expected that he will continue this run of excellence forever. Things haven't looked any different in camp so far though, with Will drawing rave reviews.

Will Billingsley
Billingsley spent all of last season on Miami's practice squad. He did enough while there to get re-signed and brought back for another training camp. His calling card is his blazing speed, but I'm still not sure if he can actually cover. The most I hear about him from camp is when someone beats him for a TD. The best he can hope for is another year of seasoning on the practice squad.

Vontae Davis
I loved the team's decision to take Davis with the 25th pick in the draft this year. He was the most physically gifted and talented defensive back in the draft and possesses some of the biggest upside. This regime loves size at all positions, and it can be especially difficult to find quality size at CB. But Davis looks to be a fit. His excellent bulk doesn't detract from his ability to stay with even the fastest WRs, and it allows him to play with tremendous physicality. He should be a force in run defense. In coverage, he's like a jack-of-all-trades. He can play man; he can play zone; he can play bump and run. He's not the best ballhawk, but he'll make his share of plays. I think Davis' ultimate upside is that of a No. 1 corner. The predominant concerns about him are that he is immature and lacks the appropriate work ethic to reach those heights. Those are legitimate worries, but Tony Sparano has proven an ability to get everyone on the same page and bought into the team ethic.

Nathan Jones
Jones was a pleasant surprise last season. It was thought that he was being brought in from Dallas to primarily play special teams - which he did, and did well, finishing with 9 special teams tackles. But he quickly vaulted up the team's depth chart and settled in as the nickel-corner. He flourished in that role, providing stable coverage and showing an uncanny ability to pressure the QB on blitzes. The coaches have been cross-training him a bit at safety this offseason, and that will only increase his chances to get on the field. With the arrival of the two rookie CBs, Jones will get bumped down the depth chart a bit, but he's still a great player to have on the team.

Sean Smith
Another size-CB, Smith has loads of it, standing 6'3.5" and weighing 214 lbs. Corners of this size are few and far between. Most draft analysts were writing him off as a CB and predicting a move to safety in the pros, but thus far he's shown a ton of promise at corner and he's already moved into the starting lineup. This is quite an impressive feat for a guy who has only been playing corner full-time for two years. Before that, he was a WR and RB, and those ball skills are immediately evident. Despite the strong early signs, Smith still needs a lot of seasoning. You'd think, given his size, that he'd be an imposing hitter and tackler, but those are actually weak points of his game. And with his height, it's inevitable that he will need work on his footwork and technique in order to keep up with smaller, shiftier WRs out of their breaks.

Joey Thomas
Thomas was signed by the team in October and played in six games in a reserve role. The team must like something about his game since they keep bringing him back, but I just don't see it. He's about to turn 29 years old, and I can't see the reason for giving him a roster spot. He's not a strong special teams player, and the only thing that sticks out in my mind about his play last year was him getting beat in coverage.

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Here's my predicted depth chart:
1. Will Allen
2. Sean Smith
3. Vontae Davis
4. Nathan Jones
5. Jason Allen

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