Dolphins’ Jalen Ramsey, Xavien Howard could form one of NFL’s top duos

MIAMI — If you thought Jalen Ramsey’s reaction to the suggestion that he’s past his prime was noteworthy, DeShon Elliott’s rang out like a Muhammad Ali prefight news conference.

The Miami Dolphins’ recently signed safety was asked about his new teammate during an introductory Zoom call with local media Wednesday, and Elliott made it clear that Ramsey is still one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.

If not the best.

“Come on now, that’s arguably the No. 1 corner in the NFL,” Elliott said. “I don’t wanna hear anybody talking about, ‘Oh, he had a down year.’ Check the numbers, check the tape. That was not a down year; he’s still an All-Pro.”

Ramsey made his sixth straight Pro Bowl last season and forms one of the better cornerback tandems the NFL has seen over the past decade alongside Xavien Howard. Since both players were drafted in 2016, no other player has more interceptions than Howard’s 28, while both he and Ramsey are two of just four players with at least 80 passes defended.

But both players enter unfamiliar territory this season, as neither will need to carry their team’s secondary.

During his three seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, Ramsey played the “star” position, which allowed him to effectively roam the field as a positionless defensive back.

Ramsey spent 20% of his defensive snaps at nickel corner and generally split his time evenly between all three cornerback positions. Versatile responsibilities result in versatile stat lines, and while Ramsey did allow the most touchdowns as the nearest defender leaguewide last season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, he also tied his career high with four interceptions. And he set new ones with two sacks, 18 passes defended and three forced fumbles.

His position was developed under then-defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, who worked under current Dolphins defensive coordinator Vic Fangio in Chicago and Denver from 2017 through the 2019 season. Ramsey said the schemes are similar, and once he learns the new terminologies, he will feel quite comfortable.

“There are different ways to play it, and that just depends on the flow of our team and exactly what [Fangio] wants me to do,” the 28-year-old Ramsey said. “But because I have that versatility, I can do whatever that he asks of me. If he wants me and ‘X’ to lock up the outside, that’s what we’re going to do … If he wants me to move around a little bit, go into nickel, go into dime, blitz, cover tight ends, running backs, whatever it is, I’ll be able to do all of it.

“I think everybody knows that. You all know me. You all know how I get down. So being able to bring that to this defense and this secondary is going to be cool for sure.”

Howard, 29, will benefit from Ramsey’s presence after a down season by his standards. Howard’s 23 expected points added (EPA) when targeted was the third-worst mark for any cornerback in the league last season. The numbers don’t tell the full story, however, as Howard fought through groin injuries for most of the season while still tailing the opponents’ best receivers.

Neither Howard nor Ramsey will shadow receivers this year — at least not in the same way they have in the past.

Not if Ramsey has any say in the matter.

“Honestly, I’ll line up and whoever comes up there is going to get it,” he said. “‘X’ is the same way. That’s how we’re wired. We aren’t worried about — that’s what people do in peewee football when they’re scared to hit. They try to look in the line and they try to match it up. ‘Oh, I’m going to go with him.’

“Nah, I’m first. Come on, whoever wants it. If he’s up first, come on. Whoever wants it. That’s how we’re going to roll around here.”

The Dolphins have yet to hit the field with their new-look secondary, so it remains to be seen how Fangio will use the All-Pro tandem, but the longtime friends know they’ll push each other regardless of their assignment.

Exactly how far they’ll push each other will take some feeling out as the outspoken Ramsey learns how to complement the soft-spoken Howard.

“I’m going to let him be him. He’s been successful already, so I ain’t trying to change him,” Ramsey said. “I’m trying to bring the best out of him, whatever that may be. And I’m sure he’ll do the same. But I mean, you can call me evil twin, I guess, if that’s what you all want to do. He’s the good one, I’m the bad one (laughing). But I’m going to keep being me. I’m going to keep talking. If I get a little bit of that out of him and that elevates his game, cool. But if that is distracting to him, then I’m going to let him be him.

“It is crazy. Me and him really text each other at random times during the day since the trade happened, like, ‘We’re really teammates.’ Because it’s crazy. Like I just randomly think about it during the day like this is crazy. Two years ago, both of us were first-team All-Pro together, I think, for the second time. I don’t know. We’ve been in Pro Bowls together. Like it’s really crazy to think about. You never really thought that we would be on the same team and be able to play at an elite level and help something special here in Miami.”

Fans with time to spare during the week might want to venture to Miami Gardens come training camp this summer, when the Dolphins generally open several practices to the public. The competition on the field will be worth the trip.

“You’re going to lose some. You’re going to win some, too, but you’re going to lose some and you’re going to learn a lot,” new Dolphins wide receiver Braxton Berrios said. “I’m a big fan of competition and iron sharpening iron, and I think that’s what I’m looking forward to the most — just being able to get on that field and seeing what works and what doesn’t against some of the top DBs in the world on a daily basis.”