By: Jason Sarney
It has been a terrific start to mini-camp for Nik Needham. Not only did he pick-off quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, yesterday in a drenched practice, he was also praised today by Coach Flores in a morning media Zoom session. When asked about the UTEP Miners rise, Flores went into deep detail, and we all got diamonds:
“He’s worked hard. He’s tough, he’s competitive, he’s a team-first guy. He’s made improvements really since he’s got here, and he’s continuing to get better. He’s aggressive."
Not only did the 3rd-year head coach praise his 3rd-year undrafted cornerback’s work ethic, but he also made sure to mention his development and progression as well, saying, “he wants to be out there, he wants to compete and normally guys who put all of those things together, they improve. And he’s definitely made a lot of improvement.”
It is no secret I myself have tracked, talked up, and taken offense of those detractors of Needham. There is a terrific off-field back story that comes with him, as some know from previous articles. Nik had an opportunity to talk about his father at today’s press conference and it once again became evident that Needham was born to play this game. I mean this quite literally, as on the week of Father’s Day, Needham was able to praise his dad, Steve Calhoun.
Calhoun is former collegiate and semi-pro quarterback who trains young and up-and-coming professionals at the his own position, wide receiver, and of course, cornerback. His West Coast-based camp is called "Armed and Dangerous," and he's had a slew of marquee receivers and first round quarterbacks under his tutelage over the past decade.
Nik described how Calhoun has helped his game in detail saying, “I think just having an understanding of the game a lot – just growing up with my dad. He’s a big football guy, so just being around it at a young age. He’s a quarterbacks coach, so I just get in the mind of an offensive player and he’s always breaking down film with offensive guys, so I’d just always look at that."
If you want to take a trip on social media and see for yourself, you could understand the iron-sharpens-iron mindset Needham has, going up against some of the best there is at wide receiver every single day that he trains. Needham has spent his entire life being coached by a quarterback and has gone one-on-one for probably thousands of reps against top quality competition growing up.
“I think throughout the years, I’ve developed more and more and become more instinctive, I guess, you can say that,” Needham added.
This is where the uninitiated collectively hit their palms over their forehead and have a Homer Simpson like “D’oh,” when they realize this kid is supposed to happen. This is his 3rd year and is the make or break one for him in Miami for the long term. It’s possible that “d’oh” turns into “dough” in the offseason, if another year of progression and development keeps Needham in town with a multi-year contract.
Coach Brian Flores is enjoying watching, saying, “he’s continuing to improve and I’m very happy with where he’s at. He does everything necessary to continue to make improvement.” Flores was not the only person praising the cornerback, as a reporter mentioned the admiration he had for Needham’s path to where he is now, despite what seems to be constant competition.
Nik said, “just stick by the same motto I said. I’m happy to have those guys here. ‘J Coleman’ (Justin Coleman) is a real cool dude. I’m trying to just focus on myself, put in time into my craft and then just whatever happens, happens. I’m just here to help the team. I’m not worried about playing any position or a certain position. I’m just here to help and do whatever they need me to do to win, for sure.”
Of course, we have to point out the negatives, or else this wouldn’t be an objective piece. There are areas of Needham's game that he needs to improve on, especially the penalties. Let’s see if he has so far:
For his career: 12 accepted penalties on him. In 2019, his undrafted rookie year, there were 6 penalties accepted and the same for 2020. However, let's break down the penalties.
-In 2019 he had one accepted illegal use of hands penalty and zero in 2020. One was declined in 2019.
- In 2019 he had four Pass Interference calls on him, two accepted, two declined. He had two in 2020, one accepted and one declined.
- In 2019 he had three holding penalties, two accepted and one declined. In 2020 he had two accepted holding calls.
-The issue in 2020 was his three accepted illegal contact calls.
-For his career 12 accepted flags, five were in 3rd down, three on 2nd-down and four on 1st-down.
Needham plays aggressive, clearly, being he was a former high school wide receiver as well as being a pass-defending monster. Which means he is getting his hands all over the ball, which inevitably will create contact, leading to some penalties.
-In 2020 he had (1) accepted Pass Interference against the Niners, which was a win.
-He had just (1) 2020 holding call all season, that being against the Raiders. Another win.
-He only committed (1) 4th quarter penalty all of last season.
Now some good stats:
- Against the Rams, they targeted Needham 11 times, and he allowed 5 catches for 59 yards. That's a QB completion percentage of 45.5 and a passer rating of 62.3
- He gave up two catches for 18 yards against the elite Keenan Allen. Allen's late score wasn't against Needham, and occurred late in the 4th as Xavien Howard was covering him then and the game essentially already won.
- Without (2) Bills games Needham's QB Comp % was 53% and those (2) Bills games his QB Comp % was 65.6%
This is where you look at a player who was undrafted, not making a lot of money, and was converted from an outside boundary player to an inside slot-man and say, "he has done quite well despite the transition." Flores, who is a defensive backs specialist as well as Gerald Alexander, who is in my opinion a future head coach in the making, gives reason to believe Needham will again improve with the penalties.
Needham is a player who will always do what he needs to do to get his body right, and a student of the game. Most people have no idea just how much film this young man watches on a daily basis It' s amazing to see what coaching confidence can do for a player’s development. Even if Needham has to take a back seat to younger players or free agents, rest assured that his competitive fire will drive him to play his best when his number is called. As he says, "just getting out there, trying to compete and make plays out there whenever the opportunity is present. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
On a team that has a number one cornerback in a holdout situation with Xavien Howard, a converted boundary cornerback in Needham may just be called again to play his natural position. If he plays nearly as well, if not better at his home than he did in his converted spot last season, you can just imagine what we may be ready to witness should be unthinkable happen with a veteran contractual situation.
On a more positive note, should Xavien Howard stick around and rework the deal, this would only mean the depth of the boundary behind Howard and Jones is stellar with Needham and Noah Igbinoghene. Thanks to the players brought in like Justin Coleman and Jason McCourty, as well as rookie Jevon Holland, Needham could be the ultimate strategic insurance policy or even dynamic depth player for this team.
What happens in the next few weeks and even months with Howard will be very interesting to track, but with the flexibility that these Dolphins have in the secondary, retaining this group should make them a top-3 unit. Furthermore, there is a potential development of continuity in the secondary for the better part of a decade should the Dolphins play their cards right. We already know they have a pair of aces and it’s just a matter of time before we find out what the rest of the hand looks like. One would hope that the Dolphins front office goes "all in" with Xavien Howard but worse comes to worse, like all gamblers look for, there are options and outs.
Regardless to what goes down it is nice to know that the talent they are bringing in in the secondary might just be developing quicker than many think.