Miami Dolphins 2014 Free Agency Preview: Secondary

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Miami Dolphins Free Agency Preview: Secondary

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Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

With the Super Bowl -- and the Seattle Seahawks' complete annihilation of the Denver Broncos -- now in the rear-view mirror, the 2014 NFL offseason is officially upon us. As the Seahawks celebrate and the Broncos lick their wounds, teams like the Miami Dolphins will continue prepping for ways to improve their rosters in order to have a more successful 2014 campaign.

That process will begin with the looming free-agency period which is set to begin at 4 p.m. ET on March 11. Not only must the Dolphins and new GM Dennis Hickey look at potentially acquiring veterans from the open market, but they also must assess their own impending free agents.

Miami has needs that should be addressed at arguably four of its five offensive line positions, running back, tight end, defensive tackle and linebacker. But it also has eight players with expiring contracts who finished the season as starters. Some difficult decisions await Hickey as he attempts to mold the Dolphins into a perennial playoff contender and then a perennial title contender.

Let's begin previewing some of the decisions Hickey must make during free agency this offseason. Today, we'll begin doing so by evaluating the Dolphins' secondary.

It's a unit that surpassed expectations in 2014, emerging as a strength of the team after arguably being its Achilles' heel in 2012. Nevertheless, both starters at cornerback and one starter at safety are slated for free agency.

Without further ado, here is Miami's 2014 free-agency preview -- secondary edition.

Cody Strahm is a Miami Dolphins contributor for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.

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2013 Review

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The above average play of Miami's secondary throughout the season was a welcomed surprise for Dolphins fans. After finishing 27th defending the pass in 2012, Kevin Coyle's unit jumped to 16th in 2013. More impressively, the Dolphins held opposing passers to a 77.3 quarterback rating which ranked fifth in the NFL.

After struggling to produce takeaways in recent seasons, the Dolphins intercepted every quarterback they faced in 2013 save Drew Brees in Week 4 and Geno Smith in Week 17. That knack for the producing picks was a key reason why the Dolphins were one win away from the postseason despite ranking as a below average offense and defense.

Individually, there was no bigger standout than Brent Grimes. According to Pro Football Focus, only Darrelle Revis graded higher in overall efficiency at cornerback. Grimes was the only cornerback in the entire league who didn't allow a touchdown pass in coverage after playing at least 700 snaps and one of five players at the position not to concede a score after being on the field for at least 25 percent of his defense's plays.

The position also saw drastic improvement from Nolan Carroll and Jimmy Wilson who were both forced into the starting lineup due to injuries. Neither is of the elite variety like Grimes, but both graded on the slightly above average side of the scale according to Pro Football Focus.

The play of rookies Jamar Taylor and Will Davis, on the other hand, was quite disappointing. Taylor played a mere 45 snaps while Davis only added 65. The two will need to develop quickly or the dreaded "bust" label will begin getting tossed around.

At safety, Chris Clemons was the top performer. He still doesn't make many impact plays, but he's about as reliable as they come in center field. Clemons was Pro Football Focus' 19th rated safety in 2013 and was their ninth most efficient safety in coverage.

Contrarily, Reshad Jones followed up his dominant 2012 campaign and a near $30 million extension with his worst season as a pro. Pro Football Focus slotted Jones 68th of 86 eligible players at the position and gave him negative grades in pass rush, coverage and run defense. Jones must return to form in 2014.

Looking ahead, the Dolphins have some in-house business to take of in the secondary -- which we will get to on the next slide -- but don't expect Hickey to be too aggressive when it comes to adding a high-priced veteran unless Grimes or Clemons don't re-sign. Even then, the Dolphins likely have too many needs on offense to drop a considerable amount of coin on a defensive back.

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Expiring Contracts

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Brent Grimes

Position: Cornerback; Age: 30; FA type: Unrestricted; Priority: High

Chris Clemons

Position: Free safety; Age: 28; FA type: Unrestricted; Priority: High

Nolan Carroll

Position: Cornerback; Age: 27; FA type: Unrestricted; Priority: Medium

Christopher Owens

Position: Cornerback; Age: 27; FA type: Unrestricted; Priority: Low

R.J. Stanford

Position: Cornerback; Age: 25; FA type: Restricted; Priority: Low

Justin Rodgers

Position: Cornerback; Age: 26; FA type: Restricted; Priority: Low

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Re-Sign, Let Walk or Tag

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Brent Grimes

Grimes was not only the Dolphins' best defensive back in 2013, but he was their best player on either side of the ball. His lockdown coverage and ability to make plays on the football was the biggest reason why Miami's pass defense was so improved.

There's no doubt that he's one of the league's best cornerbacks, but he's 30-years-old and will turn 31 over the summer. He's also undersized for the position and comes with durability concerns. For those reasons, I wouldn't advise Hickey to offer Grimes a lucrative, multiyear deal. Slapping him with the franchise tag appears the best way to retain the star without committing to him long term.

Tagging Grimes would cost the Dolphins north of $10 million. Doing so would deflate Miami's flexibility this offseason, but parting ways with the ability to virtually shutdown one side of the field would not be wise.

Verdict: Tag

Chris Clemons

Many Dolphins fans criticize Clemons for not making enough plays on the football. He has only tallied four interceptions in five seasons with the Dolphins, after all. Still, Clemons' mistake-free play shouldn't be overlooked.

Few safeties in the entire league are as reliable as Clemons in coverage. The 127 yards he conceded in coverage this past season were the fewest in the NFL at the position among those who played at least 800 snaps.

Unless the Dolphins are willing to make a huge splash at the position for an upgrade, which is highly unlikely, they shouldn't think twice about re-signing Clemons.

Verdict: Re-Sign

Nolan Carroll

With three interceptions and 11 defensed passes, Carroll had by far his best season as a pro in 2013. He was actually starting caliber for the majority of the year after frequently getting abused in coverage during his first three seasons. The wheels came off for Carroll during the final two games, however, when Thad Lewis and Geno Smith picked on him throughout.

Carroll allowed a combined 173 yards in Weeks 16 and 17, affirming what was only briefly in doubt: he's a solid backup who can fill in when need be. With concerns regarding the rookie corners' development, the Dolphins could certainly look to bring back Carroll for a reasonable price. I, for one, wouldn't trust him with a multiyear contract, though.

Verdict: Let Walk

Christopher Owens

Owens was signed by the Dolphins in December for emergency purposes after several members of the secondary suffered injuries. He could be brought back to compete for a spot in 2014, but the Dolphins will likely offer that opportunity to a few first and second-year players instead.

Verdict: Let Walk

R.J. Stanford

A restricted free-agent that the Dolphins won't have much use for, Stanford hasn't made enough of an impact during preseason games or on special teams to warrant bringing back.

Verdict: Let Walk

Justin Rodgers

Rodgers could be retained as a camp body where he'll need to show he can become a standout on special teams during training camp.

Verdict: Re-Sign

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Keep, Cut or Renegotiate

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Dimitri Patterson

Position: Cornerback; Age: 30; Years remaining on contract: 1; 2014 salary: $5.3 million; 2014 cap hit: $5.4 million; Total bonuses: $0; Dead money: $0

Patterson appeared to be in the midst of his best season as a pro in 2013, picking off four passes in only six games. His ability to provide solid coverage on the boundary opposite Grimes and in the slot when the Dolphins employed the nickel was missed when he suffered a groin injury. Patterson was eventually placed on injured reserve when it become obvious that his groin wasn't healing properly.

Add his steep $5.4 million cap hit in 2014 into the equation and it's fairly obvious that Patterson will be cut this offseason, especially considering none of his current contract is guaranteed. Unless, of course, Hickey is able to restructure the deal with Patterson's agent. Doing so seems to make the most sense for both parties.

No team is going to offer Patterson a deal on the open market similar to the one he's currently under, and if he can stay healthy he would be able to compete to retrieve his starting role in Miami.

Verdict: Renegotiate

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Potential Free-Agent Targets

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Once the Dolphins have taken care of their in-house business in the secondary, are there any options on the market that they could acquire to bolster the unit?

Chances are Miami won't look to add a starting-caliber cornerback in free agency. If it locks up Grimes and retains Carroll or Patterson, like expected, it should be fine at the position in 2014 as it waits to see if rookies Will Davis and Jamar Taylor develop into anything special. However, the Dolphins could add some depth at the position, especially considering there are few members of the secondary with any experience playing nickel corner besides Patterson and Jimmy Wilson who may or may not ever move back to safety.

Here are some free-agent defensive backs the Dolphins could target:

Hickey could also seek depth at safety where neither Clemons or Reshad Jones had a reliable backup in 2013. Also, if Clemons bolts for another team in free agency, the Dolphins will need to replace him with a quality free safety, particularly one with play-making ability.

Jairus Byrd

Position: Free safety; 2013 team: Buffalo Bills; Age: 27

There's no question that Byrd has become one of the league's best safeties. He's a ball hawk with 22 interceptions in five years to his name and is rarely out of position in coverage. If Clemons signs elsewhere, there isn't a more qualified candidate on the market to replace him than Byrd, who would actually be a substantial upgrade. Chances are, though, he'll be out of the Dolphins' price range -- like, way out.

Malcolm Jenkins

Position: Free safety; 2013 team: New Orleans Saints; Age: 26

Jenkins struggled in 2013, ranking 65th among qualifying safeties in overall efficiency by Pro Football Focus. But if the Dolphins lose Clemons, Jenkins would be one of the few options on the market with a considerable amount of starting experience.

Taylor Mays

Position: Safety/linebacker; 2013 team: Cincinnati Bengals; Age: 25

Mays' combination of size and speed makes him a physical specimen, but a pair of stiff hips raised questions about his draft stock back in 2010. Those questions proved to be legitimate as Mays never surfaced as a starting-caliber safety in Cincinnati. He could provide the Dolphins' secondary with depth, though.

Walter Thurmond

Position: Cornerback; 2013 team: Seattle Seahawks; Age: 26

The world champion and member of one of the best secondaries the NFL has seen in years will likely test the open market this offseason. Thurmond was suspended for four games this season after testing positive for marijuana which should lower his price tag. He has experience covering the slot.

Javier Arenas

Position: Cornerback; 2013 team: Arizona Cardinals; Age: 26

A nickel corner with experience returning kicks, Arenas would be a nice addition to Miami's secondary at the right price.

Elbert Mack

Position: Cornerback; 2013 team: Houston Texans; Age: 27

A small corner who has primarily covered the slot in his six seasons, Mack would have to fight his way onto the 53-man roster if signed.


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