By: Jason Sarney
The 2019 season was unlike any season the Miami Dolphins and their fan-base have ever witnessed. In April of 2019, there was a sense of hope immediately when Christian Wilkins heard his name called during the NFL Draft. The new Dolphin took his “Leap of Faith,” as the Clemson star shoulder-bumped Roger Goodell in pure joy and excitement, in what became the iconic moment of that selection process.
Then came the season, and then came the purge.
With a brand-new philosophy and head coach in Brian Flores, the team started to demolish the roster as if they were a real estate company that bought an old warehouse with plans on turning it into a condominium. In many areas of sports, business and life, before you re-build, you must destroy.
Miami knew heading into the 2019 season that they would be saying goodbye to numerous veterans via trade, namely Laremy Tunsil, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Kenyan Drake. The youth movement was set in place, as Miami welcomed several undrafted free agents ready to fight for the right, not to party, but to be a Dolphin. For several young players looking for a shot at their dream, there simply was no sleep ‘til, well, success.
We all know the story of Preston Williams, but this will be a focus on the defensive undrafted free agent to make waves in the aqua waters of South Florida.
Waves are a funny thing in nature. Some are little tiny ones, that crest before they are even seen by human eyes. Some rise from a far, as the momentum builds slowly, silently, undetected. Until it becomes a tidal wave; one that no one can ignore and run from, yet at the same time, nobody saw coming.
Nik Needham had a historic undrafted rookie season.
The Miami Dolphins signed Needham following a disappointing long weekend in April of 2019 when the UTEP record-holder in pass-breakups witnessed a full NFL Draft, but did not hear his name. Roughly 100 seconds following the naming of the draft last pick, Mr. Irrelevant, a Miami coach called the California kid who has a heart of gold to add to the work ethic of a Steel Miner in the caves.
Personality and good nature aside, which is no coincidence as nurture has always been a stronger force than the elements in my opinion. The background and upbringing from this player's parents and support system drove Needham to deal with being undrafted, cut by Miami and sent to the practice squad. When the opportunity came, Needham didn’t just walk through the door …he busted that thing down.
Nik Needham is the NFL’s only cornerback to be undrafted, and record at least 50 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble and 1 interception in that rookie season. The other 70 undrafted corners since 1982 did not accomplish this.
In 1982 the sack stat was born, so please realize there may have been another person to technically do something like this, however, without the factual “statistic,” historians and football writers can only speculate if a guy like Dick “Night Train” Lane had a sack and forced fumble to go with his league-leading 14 interceptions for the Los Angeles Rams in 1952, his undrafted rookie year.
From 1982 through the end of the century, no one came close until the 2000's, and here is a breakdown of the other undrafted corners and their rookie stat-breakdown for this study.
Ironically, #40, did something the other 40 didn't since the dawn of the millennium. Yea...40 others since 2000. You can't make this stuff up.
*following stats and research done on www.pro-football-reference.com/
Three other Hall-of-Fame cornerbacks took not being selected, and ran with the ball the other way to prove the doubters wrong while flipping opinions as they did field position. In 1966 Emmitt Thomas was signed by Kansas City and had a legendary career, but no rookie interception.
Willie Brown, who was signed and cut by the Houston Oilers in 1963, was picked up by Denver and started a 16 year career that saw the beginning four years as a Bronco and a Hall-of-Fame tenure with the Raiders. Brown had a rookie interception, no forced fumble, and I have several Raider beat-writers that have not gotten back to me yet on the yes or no on a sack.
I’m not holding my breath.
Lastly, in the 1940s/50s/60s Emlen Tunnell was a Pro-Bowl named corner for eight consecutive years for the New York Giants in his overall 11 seasons with the team. He closed his career with three years in Green Bay, with his first with them being Pro-Bowl earning as well. Tunnell had 7 interceptions his rookie year, but I Zoom'd with my Great Grandfather and he is confident there were no sacks for him in 1948. (He was season ticket holder then…. kidding)
Back to Needham.
The jump point in this study has to be 1982 and for us stat heads, all we have are the quantified numbers in front of us. 70 undrafted free agents since that season where a sack became a “thing,” had cornerbacks like Malcolm Butler, Brandon Browner, A.J. Bouye, and Chris Harris as draft day snubs. All are outstanding professional football players, yet didn’t have the rookie year Nik Needham did.
The only player remotely close to matching Needham’s historic undrafted rookie season was Nickell Robey-Coleman in 2013 for Buffalo. The current Eagle, and former Ram as recently as last season, started his career as an undrafted free agent with the Bills. In all 16 games that he appeared in, he recorded three sacks, a forced fumble, and that important interception for qualification in this breakdown. He was 15 tackles short of Needham’s 2019 output of 54.
Needham played in 12 games. Four less than Robey-Coleman.
As the Dolphin players, Needham and other undrafted free agents virtually train across the country, we all head toward an unknown reality, but the fact is this:
Miami has been doing exactly what Needham, the UTEP Miner, has been doing all his life. He has been working, training, and grinding since he was a kid, much like the Dolphins have been doing in their digging and kicking over every rock to find their treasures and reach their ultimate goal.
The Dolphins and Needham have something going, and it looks they have done exactly what any Miner worth his sea-salt does…never stop grinding...until you strike gold.
You can follow Jason on Twitter @OrangeAquaman and on YouTube!
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