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NFL's most improved defenses after the 2020 NFL Draft and free agency

Quality defensive play is necessary, especially in today’s pass-happy NFL. Even the NFL teams with the highest-scoring offenses will need their defenses to eventually stand up and make a play, and without that quality on the defensive side of the ball, winning in the NFL is nearly impossible. Here, we take a look at the NFL teams that made some critical moves this offseason to help improve their defensive deficiencies from 2019.

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Miami Dolphins

No team struggled more on defense last season than the Miami Dolphins, who began the year by allowing a season-high 643 total yards and 59 points in their season opener against the Baltimore Ravens.

The Dolphins would eventually earn a league-low 53.8 overall defensive grade while allowing opponents to generate more successful offensive plays (396, as measured by expected points added) than any other unit league-wide.

The Miami defense played Cover 1 on 44.2% of their 1,052 coverage snaps in 2019, the second-most Cover 1 snaps in the NFL. And that high volume of man coverage coupled with the team’s poor pass-rush production essentially left its secondary exposed. The Dolphins managed league-low totals in terms of quarterback pressures (197), sacks (22) and hurries generated (132), and in turn, allowed the highest percentage of explosive plays of 15 plus yards (19.7%) last season.

2019 Miami Dolphins: Team-level defense statistics and rank among 32 teams (regular season only)
Stat Rank among 32 defenses
Team defense grade 53.8 32nd
Team pass-rush grade 56.2 32nd
Team coverage grade 40.3 32nd
Total pressures 197 32nd
Pressure rate 26.6% 32nd
Passer rating allowed 104.7 24th
Yards allowed per pass play 7.34 32nd
EPA allowed per play 0.093 32nd

 

The Dolphins’ single-man coverage snaps increased by more than 30% after Brian Flores took over as the team’s head coach. And even the team’s best defender, cornerback Xavien Howard, saw his coverage grade plummet from 75.3 in 2018 to a disappointing 57.0 last season. 

This offseason, the Dolphins addressed their pass-rush and coverage problems by using five of their eleven draft picks on defensive players, and another seven defenders were added to the roster through free agency. But they didn’t just select bodies — they selected players who already have experience in the kind of man-coverage schemes Flores likes to run.

Miami Dolphins: 2020 Additions on defense
2020 NFL Draft 2020 NFL Free Agency
CB Noah Igbinoghene CB Byron Jones
DI Raekwon Davis S Adrian Colbert
S Brandon Jones Edge Kyle Van Noy
Edge Jason Stonebridge LB Elandon Roberts
Edge Curtis Weaver LB Kamu Grugier-Hill
Edge Shaq Lawson
Edge Emmanuel Ogbah

First-round pick Noah Igbinoghene played more man coverage snaps (210) than any other defensive back in this year’s draft class and went on to allow a passer rating of just 67.3 on his man-coverage targets. Igbinogehne is reportedly set to man the slot corner position inside veteran corners Howard and free-agent signee Byron Jones, whom the Dolphins signed to a five-year, $82 million contract after a very strong two-year stretch of play in which he forced an incompletion on 23.4% of his man-coverage snaps. 

To shore up the pass rush, the Dolphins signed edge-linebacker hybrid Kyle Van Noy and edge rusher Shaq Lawson before then selecting Boise State edge rusher Curtis Weaver in the NFL draft.

From Week 11 of the 2016 season — when Van Noy was first traded to New England — to the end of the 2019 season, Van Noy ranked second to only Trey Flowers in total pressures among Patriots defensive players (115). However, 58 of those pressures came after he lined up as a traditional linebacker, whereas another 57 came after he lined up as an edge defender, which shows just how impactful and versatile he can be. 

After falling to the bottom of the league throughout the 2019 season, the newly improved Dolphins defense is now poised to build on a late-season winning streak that saw the team win three of its last five games down the stretch in December, including wins over the playoff-bound Eagles and Patriots.

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