Safety Status: How Much Will Nate Allen and T.J. McDonald Contribute for the Dolphins?

Going into the offseason, depth in the secondary (particularly at safety) was one of the Miami Dolphins’ biggest question marks. Knowing this, the front office wisely extended star safety Reshad Jones’ contract and brought in veterans Nate Allen and T.J. McDonald to replace the injured Isa Abdul-Quddus. Locking up Reshad Jones’ starting spot in the long-term and having competition at the other starting spot spells some positivity for a beleaguered Miami secondary that could use a pick-me-up. Last year’s starting four in the secondary, Byron Maxwell, Xavien Howard, Reshad Jones, and Isa-Abdul Quddus, were solid but always in the trainer’s room. Forgetting the mess at cornerback, both starting safeties ended the season on injured reserve. The injuries to the secondary ensured that the Dolphins’ lack of depth was to be at the forefront in big games against the Patriots and Steelers, where they were thoroughly exposed. Based on their acquisitions in free agency, it seems as though the team doesn’t want to see anything like that anytime soon, Greg.

Nate Allen:

As of now, Nate Allen figures to be the starting safety next to Reshad Jones in Week 1. Unfortunately, this could be problematic for the defense. The 29-year-old former Oakland Raider has had a rough go of things over the last two seasons. After a very solid 2014 season as the Philadelphia Eagles’ starter, Allen suffered a torn MCL that landed him on injured reserve during his first season in Oakland. In 2016, he struggled to recapture health and form as a depth player behind Reggie Nelson and rookie standout Karl Joseph. He found his way to Miami as Oakland’s odd-man-out and it seems as though the Dolphins think he’s worth their time and money. As a starter, Allen is far from ideal, but he has experience in bulk and has showed a knack for playmaking at times throughout his tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles. Considering Isa Abdul-Quddus’ departure, the team needed a veteran body at safety which Allen should capably fill. Allen’s 1-year $3.4 million contract is low risk and indicates that the Miami Dolphins view him as a bandaid before a permanent starter can be found, be it McDonald or a rookie.

T.J. McDonald:

McDonald

(Photo: Rick Scuteri)

I’m not entirely sure how to feel about the T.J. McDonald signing. One the one hand, he is a decent starting caliber safety that the Dolphins were able to get on an incredibly cheap 1-year $775 thousand contract. On the other hand, he is suspended for the first 8 games of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Typically, I shy away from positively viewing the signing of “character risk” players, but McDonald is essentially being paid peanuts to potentially take over as the Dolphins’ starting safety post-suspension. Even in the event that the former Ram makes another mistake and misses the whole year to suspension, the Dolphins really only lose a few drops in the bucket monetarily speaking. McDonald is hardly a Pro Bowl caliber talent, but his abilities in coverage would pair well with bruiser Reshad Jones. While he won’t be improving the run-defense all that much, having an athletic and healthy safety that knows how to cover can take the edge off of some of the Dolphins’ less capable cornerbacks. Overall, I think this was a high upside flier that could pay dividends come playoff time, as a healthy T.J. McDonald entering the fold down the stretch would instantly improve the Dolphins’ defense.

How They Fit With the Defense:

Both Nate Allen and T.J. McDonald should be very good fits in Miami’s zone-based coverage scheme. Additionally, both have taken over the linebacker role in their respective 4-3 defensive fronts, which is certainly a positive considering the sieve-like Miami Dolphins’ linebacker corps. However, both players bring completely different talents to the table.

For argument’s sake, I’m going to make the assumption that Nate Allen does not recapture 2014 form and remains constant with last year’s talent level. Allen plays a very aggressive high-risk, high-reward style. He has above average ball skills and comes down with interceptions more than your run-of-the-mill safety:

Allen intercepts Luck

However, he is also very inconsistent with his coverage ability. He often lets faster receivers get by him deep for game-changing plays:

Allen burned by Swoope

This risky style of play has yielded more negative than positive since his knee injury, as his already average agility and range has been sapped. The fact that he’s quickly approaching 30 does not lead me to believe in a significant turnaround in Miami. However, he figures to be at minimum a reliable depth safety and spot starter in 2017.

Allen will also boost the run-defense as his 6’ 0”and 210lb frame gives him the size to take down most ball-carriers one-v-one. He’s hardly a big-hitter, but he doesn’t whiff on tackles too often and is fairly reliable in most running situations:

Allen shoe tackle

By contrast to the jack-of-all-trades reliable Nate Allen, T.J. McDonald is a great cover man and somewhat of a liability against the run. In 2016, he had the 23rd best coverage rating among safeties, making him an objectively above average #2 safety to pair with Reshad Jones. He only has 4 interceptions to his name in his career and doesn’t make a bunch of flashy plays, but his athletic ability and range are well above average:

McDonald Closes on Floyd

 

His athleticism and size are what teams look for in a safety (6’2” and 217lbs). His consistency against the pass (25 of his 43 targets his way completed) is solid. There are only two aspects that need to be improved to make him a long-term solution to the Dolphins’ secondary woes.

  1. He needs to improve his tackling, especially in the run game.

Sometimes McDonald just can’t get out of his own way. He whiffs on far too many tackles and directly contributed to a Rams’ secondary that missed more tackles than anyone else last season. He also must improve his reads in the run game, where he is often fooled by misdirects and QB keepers:

McDonald bites on QB keeper

  1. He needs to get his act together.

In order to be a great NFL player, you need to stay on the field. I doubt the Dolphins (or any other team for that matter) will give him another opportunity like this if he is suspended again. I know this goes without saying, but the best ability is availability. 

What This Means for the Future:

While I would not be shocked if the Dolphins drafted another safety, the stopgap options of Nate Allen and T.J. McDonald give them more freedom to address other areas of need like linebacker, edge rusher, cornerback, and interior offensive line. While I can see either or both of the two acquisitions succeeding alongside Reshad Jones this year, neither are ideal long-term solutions. We have to understand and recognize that the team is addressing concerns without necessarily breaking the bank. Handling the issue at safety in free agency was a savvy business move, as it is one of the few positions in the NFL where solid talent can actually be accrued without destroying future cap-space. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

 

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