Calculated Risk: Dolphins Hope Byron Maxwell Bounces Back Under DC Vance Joseph
The Seattle Seahawks, in the sixth round of the 2011 NFL draft, picked this 28-year old cornerback out of Clemson. In the four years he spent in Seattle, Byron Maxwell gradually became one of the steadier performers in their defensive backfield. He helped lead them to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances and a championship win. While he undoubtedly benefited from playing alongside a devastating pass-rush, and consistently had help from safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas as well, his play guaranteed attention from various suitors around the league. Add in what was widely considered a weak group of cornerbacks in free agency, and Maxwell was rewarded a ludicrous deal by the Philadelphia Eagles, worth $63 million over 6 years.
His time in Philly will always be considered an overwhelming failure, as he spent only one year as an Eagle. He consistently struggled to play even respectable coverage, allowed far-too-many big plays, and drew enormous criticisms for his disappointing performance in the wake of an extremely generous contract. This led to his trade to the Dolphins, as the Eagles understandably looked for a fresh start after the dismissal of Chip Kelly and arrival of new head coach Doug Pederson. Fans will be anxious to see if the Dolphins are able to restructure his contract, but that remains to be seen at this point in the process.
Maxwell’s biggest strength has always been his abilities in zone coverage. In fact, scouts believed that his skill in this area would allow him to make a transition to safety at the next level. He has the speed, the ball skills and, perhaps most importantly, the instincts to thrive when tasked with covering a specific part of the field as opposed to shadowing a team’s top receiver without much freedom. Unfortunately, former Eagles’ defensive coordinator Bill Davis’ scheme employed an overwhelming amount of man coverage. Instead, let’s look back at Maxwell’s time in Seattle to see what he is capable of in the right defensive setup:
Due to the zone coverage, Maxwell has help from the linebacker underneath and from Chancellor over the top. This allows Maxwell to completely sell out his coverage toward the sideline, and when Eli Manning attempts to thread the needle, Maxwell is there to make a play on the ball.
The cornerback’s playmaking ability should also be on full display in Miami. With the added freedom supplied by a zone coverage scheme, Maxwell has the opportunity to once again show off the ball skills and attacking nature that made him one of the most sought after available defensive back options following his stint as a Seahawk. Watch the play below for an example of his soft hands in coverage:
While it occasionally gets him into trouble, Maxwell has the added ability to attack the ball while tackling as well:
He definitely seems a little upright on this play, but it is important to notice how his hands immediately go for the ball. This playmaking ability will be a welcome addition to a Miami team that aims to force more turnovers next season.
At 6’1” and 201 pounds, Maxwell has the size of the NFL’s prototypical cornerback, meaning he should be able to stick with larger wide receivers should they be assigned to his part of the field. He also has impressive speed, which in theory should translate to strong coverage against quicker receivers as well. Finally, Maxwell has above average strength for his position, totaling 24 reps on the bench press at his NFL Combine before even entering the NFL’s training program. These all help him in press coverage and as a run-stopper.
Maxwell evidently obtains many of the tools necessary to succeed; now he simply needs to be placed in a defense that plays to these strengths and limits the exposure of his weaknesses.
While evaluating some of his game film, Maxwell’s shortcomings in man coverage stick out like a sore thumb. He simply doesn’t have the necessary hip fluidity or the ability to quickly identify routes, which would help hide this physical weakness. Maxwell can’t be considered a lockdown corner for these reasons, although he is being paid like one.
On this play, Watkins immediately shakes Maxwell. It takes an extra instant for Maxwell to turn his hips, and at that point it is already far too late. Watkins waltzes in for an easy 47-yard touchdown.
In the demonstration below, Maxwell opens his hips way too early. White takes advantage by running a simple cross route across the middle of the field, resulting in an easy completion.
You shouldn’t need any more examples of how badly Maxwell struggled in Philadelphia after this next one:
Maxwell fails to jam Jones, who uses a quick jab-step to easily beat the coverage. The play went for 44 yards, setting the Falcons up in position for Matt Bryant’s game winning 47-yard field goal. Jones totaled 141 yards in this game, including this play and another 22-yard touchdown allowed by Maxwell.
Unfortunately, he is also known to occasionally take bad routes to the ball. This could be in run support, or when trying to tackle a receiver.
I can’t seem to figure out a plausible explanation for how Maxwell failed to lay even a finger on Terrance Williams on this play. He plays off-man coverage, which is supposed to allow cornerbacks to make the plays that develop in front of them. Instead, Williams catches the ball, Maxwell takes a terrible angle in pursuit, and Williams jogs into the end zone untouched.
While many of these issues were amplified by the defense ran in Philadelphia, the Miami coaching staff has no choice but to work towards improving his game in these areas.
How He Fits in Miami:
I don’t know if there is a better fit for Maxwell in terms of scheme and coaching than in Miami. Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, a former defensive backs’ coach, should be able to work wonders with his new player. Leon Hall, Adam Jones and Jonathan Joseph are just a few of the cornerbacks who flourished under Joseph’s guidance. Joseph should be able to get Maxwell to perform to the best of his abilities. Ultimately, Vance Joseph’s zone coverage scheme is tailor made for Maxwell’s talents. He should no longer be forced to shadow a team’s top receiver one-on-one. Look for Joseph to make use of his cornerback’s press coverage skills as well.
While the Dolphins will employ a 4-3 defense this season, Joseph will most likely attempt to use various different looks to keep the offense under pressure. A successful pass-rush will assist in masking some of Maxwell’s deficiencies. He could use the Wide-9 sets that we have discussed previously, or simply increase the amount of blitzes he sends at the quarterback. Look for Joseph to start the transition to a 3-4 defense as soon as possible. At the very least, Maxwell should benefit from the play of Cameron Wake and newly acquired Mario Williams.
Miami needs a ton of help in the secondary, and I’m sure more moves are to come to sure up the position. Whatever improvements are made will be a huge help for Maxwell too. While Joseph will undoubtedly take advantage of Maxwell’s prowess in zone coverage, he can’t be asked to completely abandon man coverage either. Hopefully the Dolphins have some more tricks up their sleeves, because asking Maxwell to consistently mirror opposing number one receivers would be a recipe for disaster. Due to the risks in taking on his contract, Miami has to do everything it can to put Maxwell in the best possible position to succeed.
Unfortunately, it will take time to see if this calculated risk pays off in the long run. After all, there are still five years left on Maxwell’s contract. Alonso should inject some life into an inconsistent linebacker’s corps, and the Dolphins evidently hope that Maxwell will do the same for the secondary.
My best guess is Maxwell’s game will seem drastically improved in Miami. He may never be worthy of his $63 million contract, but it would be shocking for him to perform as poorly as he did under Davis in Philadelphia. This may make the transaction worth it in the eyes of Adam Gase and Mike Tannenbaum.
The Dolphins are clearly experiencing a complete overhaul under Gase, both in terms of culture and personnel. The more talent on each side of the ball, the better, and without Grimes in the mix, Maxwell seems to be their best option. Obviously, Alonso is also a key component in the trade, and the move can’t be evaluated as a whole without taking his addition into consideration. However, even disregarding Alonso, acquiring Maxwell may not be as devastating as it initially seemed. At this point, only time will tell.