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2020 Training Camp Preview: Cornerbacks

The return of football is always a welcome sight, perhaps now more than ever before. An arduous offseason is in the books and everyone's favorite time of year is on the precipice. August in Miami means heat, humidity, hitting and hard decisions made in order to trim the roster down to 53 in time for Week 1.

In this training camp preview, we're going position-by-position giving you a glimpse into every member of the Miami Dolphins roster. We'll cover all the angles including who the players are on the field and off of it.

On today's docket, the cornerbacks, in order of jersey number.

Tae Hayes – 1 accrued season (2nd in MIA)
Jersey: 22
College: Appalachian State
Opening Day Age: 23

Thrust into a sink or swim situation late in the year, Tae Hayes rose to the surface in a short sample size. The December waiver claim was targeted 16 times in two games (107 defensive snaps and 20 on special teams), allowing three completions (18.8 percent completion) for 55 yards (3.44 yards per target) with two pass breakups and a passer rating against of just 41.4.

Hayes chipped in with seven tackles and three run stops, earning comprehensive praise for his coverage and tackling from Head Coach Brian Flores.

"Tae jumped right in and played a significant amount of snaps last week," Flores said after Hayes' first game vs. Cincinnati. "He made a few plays and was competitive on most of the coverage. I thought he tackled well. It's a good start. I think we need to build on that in practice, meetings and walkthroughs and hopefully duplicate that type of performance again."

Byron Jones – 5 accrued seasons (1st in MIA)
Jersey: 24
College: Connecticut
Opening Day Age: 27

There are many traits to point to Byron Jones as the quintessential cornerback. He's durable (missed one game in five years). He's physical and effective against the run (349 career tackles). He's versatile (2,067 career snaps as a corner, 2,836 at safety). Most importantly, he's a blanket in coverage. Since switching to cornerback full-time in 2018, Jones has allowed 76 receptions on 136 targets for a completion rate of only 55.8 percent.

Flores complimented Jones' abilities in a recent press conference, highlighting the traits that attracted the Dolphins to acquire the cornerback's services.

"He's a smart player. He's a tough player," Flores said. "I think he can tackle, he's got good cover skills, he's got length, he's got some leadership qualities. He's a talented player and we're happy to have him."

Jones is an athletic marvel; he blew the doors off the 2015 NFL Combine. He paced the defensive backs in the vertical (44.5 inches) and broad jumps (147 inches), 3-cone (6.78 seconds), 20-yard shuttle (3.94 seconds), and 60-yard shuttle (10.98 seconds). Jones' rare length and athletic combination makes it a difficult task for receivers to earn clean releases when he lines up in press-man.

Jones' relative athletic score card is nearly perfect – 9.96 out of 10. That 9.96 score is the highest ever for a cornerback from Kent Platte’s Combine athletic grading scale. The 147-inch broad jump by Jones at the Combine set a world record that still stands today.

Per, Jones ranked second in yards per target allowed at 5.1 in 2019. He allowed the ninth-fewest receptions per game (2.2) and the fourth-fewest yards (351). Jones ranked fourth in both coverage rating and catch rate allowed.

Xavien Howard – 4 accrued seasons (5th in MIA)
Jersey: 25
College: Baylor
Opening Day Age: 27

Since he entered the league in 2016, Xavien Howard has as many interceptions (13) as touchdowns allowed, per Pro Football Focus. He's limited opposing quarterbacks to a 75.3 passer rating and a completion rate of only 55.4 percent. Playing the football and disrupting the timing of the passing game are two feathers in Howard's cap, but he's just as efficient as a tackler. With 140 tackles and 24 missed opportunities at ball carriers in his career, Howard gets his man to the ground 85 percent of the time.

Howard plays the game with physicality and confidence. Nothing is easy when facing No. 25 in aqua; he will challenge receivers at the line, at the top of the stem, and at the catch point. Howard showed off those traits and that desire to challenge every step of the route on an interception on Monday Night Football last year in Pittsburgh. Howard burst onto the scene in another prime-time game in 2017 with a pair of interceptions.

Miami extended Howard in the spring of 2019; prompting Flores to rave about the abilities of his lockdown corner.

"He's got good length," Flores said after the extension was announced. "He's got good strength at the line of scrimmage. He's got really good ball skills. He tackles well. I think he's just a good overall player. Again, he doesn't have all of the answers. He's not the perfect player. I don't think there is one. Obviously it's an imperfect game. But he does a lot of things that we like and he's a team player."

Nate Brooks – 1 accrued season (2nd in MIA)
Jersey: 30
College: North Texas
Opening Day Age: 24

After originally signing as an undrafted free agent with the Cardinals in 2019, Nate Brooks found his way to the New England practice squad. On December 10, Miami signed Brooks and elevated him to the active roster. Brooks played three games for the Dolphins totaling 91 snaps on defense and 14 on special teams.

Brooks started the Week 17 game in New England and played the third-most snaps among Dolphins corners. He permitted only two catches on five targets – playing 28 of his 30 snaps as a perimeter corner – and broke up one pass. Brooks didn't miss a tackle on 11 attempts and registered one run stop on the season.

Ken Webster – 1 accrued season (2nd in MIA)
Jersey: 31
College: Ole Miss
Opening Day Age: 24

Playing sparingly through the first three games of 2019 (nine snaps), Webster was called on for 217 snaps the rest of the way. With 19 tackles and no missed attempts, Webster was terrific at getting ball carriers to the ground. Four of those tackles were within two yards of the line of scrimmage.

Webster, among some of the other young cornerbacks, earned praise from Flores for what they bring to the table.

"I think those guys play hard." Flores said. "They work the techniques, they try to be physical at the line of scrimmage. All three guys can run pretty well. We're trying to develop everyone on the team. I think you can kind of see some progress in the back end with those guys. Look, they're all hardworking kids. It's very important to each one of them. They listen, they're attentive and they've had a little bit of production."

Jamal Perry – 1 accrued season (2nd in MIA)
Jersey: 33
College: Iowa State
Opening Day Age: 25

Formerly Jomal Wiltz, the second-year Dolphins cornerback changed his name to honor his stepfather. After going undrafted, Perry was signed by the Eagles before making his way to the Patriots practice squad where he played under then-Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores.

With 58 tackles, two tackles for loss and an interception, it was Wiltz's versatility that intrigued Miami to bring the cornerback south.

"I think both players (Wiltz and Rowe) and smart," Flores said regarding what prompted the team to pursue a pair of former Patriots – Perry and Eric Rowe. "I think they both play disciplined football. I think they work hard and they tackle. They're both – they're pretty good cover guys. Again, I think they're versatile. They can play multiple positions, and again, they have familiarity with how we do things, and I think that's helped some of the other guys."

Nik Needham – 1 accrued season (2nd in MIA)
Jersey: 40
College: Texas El Paso
Opening Day Age: 23

The evolution of Nik Needham's rookie season was one of the more intriguing storylines attached to the 2019 Miami Dolphins. After starting the preseason opener, Needham began the year on the Dolphins practice squad before eventually getting the call in Week 6. Needham never looked back.

In his NFL debut against Washington, Needham pitched a coverage shutout with no receptions on three targets and 17 coverage snaps (with one pass breakup). His workload increased each week for the next month as he settled into a starting position. Needham allowed only a 59.5 completion percentage, intercepted two passes and made 54 tackles with just seven missed attempts. He made 17 run stops and registered five quarterback pressures on just 15 pass rush reps, including one sack.

Flores talked last November – after a two-game stretch from Needham where the rookie held opposing quarterbacks to 50 percent completion and 4.06 yards per target – about the initial impression the rookie gave then-cornerbacks coach and new Defensive Coordinator Josh Boyer, and the evolution of his game.

"Josh Boyer, it's March and he goes, 'I think I've got a kid from UTEP who's pretty decent,'" Flores said. "When he says 'pretty decent' that means he's probably pretty good. We brought him in as a free agent and he did some good things in OTAs and had some struggles like most rookies do in the preseason and wasn't quite ready, so we put him on the practice squad. This is the National Football League – that's the journey of a lot of guys in the National Football League. It's part of their journey, I should say. He spent a few weeks on the practice squad. I think getting released and going through that process took him through a little bit of the reality of what the National Football League could be. It could be over in a heartbeat. He embraced that challenge and turned things around quickly and I would say took everything a little bit more seriously – meetings, practice, walkthrough, weightlifting, nutrition.

Picasso Nelson Jr. – 0 accrued seasons (1st in MIA)
Jersey: 45
College: Southern Mississippi
Opening Day Age: 24

Added to the roster earlier this month, Nelson spent the 2019 season on the Colts practice squad after signing as an undrafted free agent. He played in 50 games at Southern Miss totaling 202 tackles, 15 pass breakups, five interceptions and a forced fumble. Nelson also earned academic all-conference honors and the Southern Miss Best Male Citizen Award in 2018.

Nelson ran a 4.48 40-yard dash at his 2019 Pro Day. His vertical jump measured at 39 inches and 128 inches on the broad jump.

Noah Igbinoghene – Rookie
Jersey: 46
College: Auburn
Opening Day Age: 20

Igbinoghene's coaches at Auburn couldn't say enough about his passion for the game and competitive toughness on Saturdays, which the Dolphins hope will translate to Sundays.

"He's one of the defensive leaders," Auburn Head Coach Gus Malzahn said. "He has a presence about him. And [he played] with a whole lot more confidence this spring. He plays with an edge and that carries over for a lot of people."

Wesley McGriff, Auburn's defensive backs coach, praised Igbinoghene's attitude, calling it "phenomenal" and saying they had to "run him out of the building," as he was putting in the work after hours.

That work ethic pairs well with some eye-popping athletic traits. A former high school triple jump national champion, Igbinoghene displayed his rare athleticism at this year's Scouting Combine. He ran a 4.48 40-yard dash and posted a 37-inch vertical jump and 128-inch broad jump, the latter checking in at the 88th percentile.

General Manager Chris Grier said the 5-foot-11, 197-pound corner was the best player on the board when the Dolphins selected him with the 30th overall pick in April.

"(He was the) best player on the board for us," Grier said. "We felt really good about Noah. We got to know him. This is a passing league as everyone says. You can never have enough corners … Brian (Flores) came from a really good defensive team when we hired him and they had a lot of corners. At the end of the day, the way this league is offensively, it's a premium position and the more you have, the better. It breeds competition. (He's a) competitive kid that we really liked in the process."

Igbinoghene, a wide receiver convert, posted impressive numbers going up against some of the country's best receivers in the SEC. On 879 coverage snaps in his college career, Igbinoghene surrendered only three touchdowns.

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