No Safety, No Problem? What’s the Future at Free Safety for Miami?

Walt Aikens
By: Justin Porreca
            Miami’s defense has the potential to be a top-ten defense, maybe even a top-five defense this season. As Ndamukong Suh said, Miami has the talent level to potentially be the number one defense this season. However, those predictions may have shifted slightly after the Dolphins lost veteran free safety Louis Delmas to another torn right ACL.
             Delmas tore his ACL last Wednesday during a joint practice with the Carolina Panthers. Delmas had previously tore it week 13 last season versus the Baltimore Ravens. Now Miami has to look to third-year pro, Michael Thomas and 2014 fourth-round draft choice, Walt Aikens.
            Miami knew the risk they were taking in opting to resign the injury-prone Delmas. His best NFL season was his rookie campaign for the Detroit Lions; after that Delmas was inconsistent and failed to stay on the field. He has the potential to be a stud-safety due to his physical abilities along with his intangibles, but he’s an inconsistent tackler and sometimes inconsistent in pass coverage. Plus, Delmas could never stay on the field long enough to fully show his star potential. Miami took a flier on resigning him in hopes he would come back 100 percent and be a key contributor to a vastly improved defense. That plan backfired and now the Dolphins have a major hole at free safety. Besides the guard position, this was the second biggest positional concern Miami had going into the 2015 season.
            With rumors swirling that Rishard Matthews is competing for a roster spot on the team with wide receiver compatriot, Matt Hazel, Miami would be wise to use Matthews as trade bait to pick up a safety. With Jordy Nelson out for the season and Randall Cobb injuring his shoulder, the Packers are in desperate need of quality receiver help. Instead of just letting Matthews walk for free, Miami could exchange him for one of the Packers many quality safeties. Micah Hyde would be the one of interest. A versatile talent, Hyde can play centerfield and line up man-to-man against opposing slot receivers. Hyde can also play as the nickel corner if needed.
            Another potential trading partner could be the Arizona Cardinals, who have four quality starting safeties on their roster: Deone Bucannon, Tyrann Mathieu, Rashad Johnson and Tony Jefferson. It’s unlikely that both Johnson and Jefferson will start in 2015 due to Mathieu being healthy and coming back into form and Bucannon shining as a rookie last season. This leaves one of the two solid safeties possibly on the trading block. With Arizona having an abundance of talented wide receivers, it’s difficult to know what Miami would have to give Arizona for one of their top-tier safeties.
            Luckily, Miami still has Reshad Jones to hold down the fort in the back half of the defense. A top-ten safety, Jones will have to be the centerfielder, playmaker and game-changer for the Dolphins defense this season. He will also have to pickup the slack for either Thomas or Aikens.
            Thomas should have the upper hand in the positional battle over Aikens due to his experience at the position. Aikens came out of Liberty as a cornerback and transitioned to the safety position. Thomas also has more experience in defensive coordinator, Kevin Coyle’s 4-3 system and has a better rapport with the coaching staff. Each of these two players have their strengths and weaknesses, and it will come down to the final two preseason games to determine who fills the void Delmas left.
            Back to Delmas, he was a bargain low profile signing, one-year, $2.25 million, especially given the fact that Miami had high hopes he would return to form and flash his true potential. The major signing of Suh left Miami cap strapped and unable to make a push for the best free safety on the market, Rahim Moore, formerly of the Denver Broncos. Moore ended up signing with the Houston Texans for 3-years, $12 million. Despite being a liability against the run and an inconsistent tackler, like Delmas, Moore excels in pass coverage. He’s a top-notch cover safety, accumulating four interceptions last season.
            Moore, playing along side Jones, would have been a major upgrade over Delmas. Jones would have been the playmaking, game changer playing in the box and Moore would have been the centerfielder, either playing deep or lining up man-to-man against the tight end or slot receiver. Moore would have increased Miami’s overall talent level and pass defense, which needed a slight upgrade. Unfortunately, the Dolphins couldn’t sign Moore and were left with the resigning’s of Delmas and Thomas at free safety.
            It’s unlikely that the Dolphins will look to bring back Delmas for a third season and Thomas was only signed to a one-year deal, this means Miami will need to look to either free agency or the draft to find their next top-tier free safety.
            Despite this being a very early look into the future of the Dolphins, especially without seeing how things play out with either Thomas or Aikens, they’re not the future and this is a positional hole Miami knew was an issue prior to training camp.
            Miami has three key free agents to resign next offseason that could put a hindrance on any plan to sign one of the top-tier free safeties on the market. Olivier Vernon and Lamar Miller are both in contract years and if they continue to excel like last season, they will likely get their money. Derrick Shelby is the other notable free agent. He’s a solid rotational piece at defensive end that adds depth to Miami’s solid defensive line.
            If Miami can somehow come up with the funds to spend on a top-tier safety, although unlikely, they would have some very enticing options. Eric Berry of the Kansas City Chiefs, Eric Weddle of the San Diego Chargers and Tashaun Gipson of the Cleveland Browns headline a loaded free safety class. It’s unknown whether or not these three players will receive the franchise tag, be resigned or allowed to test the market, what is known is that the price tag will be high and maybe too high for Miami’s price range.
            If Miami, due to resigning homegrown talent, are unable to sign a high profile free safety in free agency, they will need to look to the 2016 NFL draft.
            Two key prospects stand out at safety for next year’s draft, Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey and USC’s Su’a Cravens.
            Both are incredibly versatile talents that would bring a different talent package to Miami’s secondary. Cravens would be the better fit for Miami, being that he has the talent level to be either a strong safety or free safety. However, Cravens is a “tweener,” formerly playing safety, but now exceling at outside linebacker for the Trojans. He’s a solid athlete who is both a thumper and a playmaker in the box. His skillset and play resemble that of Kam Chancellor. Cravens isn’t afraid to lay a hit on someone, can drop back in coverage with tremendous fluidity, or line up man-to-man with the opposing tight end or slot receiver. He has average ball-hawking skills, but solid instincts and technique and good change of direction quickness.
            Cravens’ versatility would provide Miami with plenty of options. They could use him as the strong side linebacker, bolstering their weak linebacker unit, or as strong safety, moving Reshad Jones over to free safety, where he can be more of a playmaker and ball-hawk.
            As for Ramsey, he’s the more talented of the two safety prospects, having a much higher ceiling and a lot more room for growth and development. He’s a dual-position talent that started at free safety his true freshman season and switched from safety to corner game to game. Ramsey primarily played safety in his sophomore campaign, and this season he will try his hand at playing only cornerback, lining up one-on-one with the opposing teams number one wide receiver. However, Ramsey will have to prove that he can excel on the outside in man-to-man coverage.
            Ramsey compares closely to [Tyrann] Mathieu, however he doesn’t have all the baggage that came with Mathieu and he’s more talented, with a much higher ceiling. He, being Ramsey, is an extremely athletic player with great explosiveness and recovery speed. His burst allows him to be a frequent pass-rusher, similar to that of Reshad Jones. He can make plays all over the field, cover the slot receiver, cover the tight end and isn’t afraid to make a tackle. Ramsey is an aggressive playmaker and ball-hawk, but he’s prone to getting exposed because he let’s receivers get an initial jump on him, allowing them to get on the inside of the route so he can’t make a play on the ball. He has solid recovery speed, but doesn’t have change of direction quickness. He gets beat frequently in off-man coverage, his instincts need fine tuning and his technique and footwork can be sloppy at times.
             It’s uncertain whether or not he has shutdown corner abilities, but football fans will find out this season. Having two versatile, playmaking safeties in the secondary would be a blessing for Miami. Regardless, Cravens or Ramsey would be great, young additions to Miami’s secondary if they declare for the 2016 NFL draft and if Miami has the opportunity to snag them.

            The back half of Miami’s secondary may be a liability this season with either Aikens or Thomas playing free safety. They may exceed expectations, which would in turn strengthen Miami’s potentially dominant defense. However, if Miami wants to have a top-five defense throughout Suh’s tenure, with a formidable pass defense, they will need to address the free safety position.