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By: Michael Nania
Who has the better cornerback duo: Miami Dolphins or New York Jets?
While the New York Jets brought in an accomplished passer this offseason, the division-rival Miami Dolphins countered by bringing in someone who is accomplished at defending the pass. Miami traded for six-time Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey, pairing him up with four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard.
Teeming with star power, the Ramsey-Howard duo is generating plenty of hype. Some media members are even claiming it is a better duo than the one that ruled the AFC East (and arguably the entire league) in 2022: the Jets’ Sauce Gardner–D.J. Reed tandem.
ESPN’s Ryan Clark ranked Ramsey and Howard as the NFL’s best cornerback duo, placing Gardner and Reed in the third spot. NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks not only ranked the Dolphins’ secondary as the best in football, but he ranked it as the fifth-best position group in the entire league among all offensive and defensive position groups.
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The hype for Howard and Ramsey is understandable considering the accolades and long-standing notoriety of both players. Unfortunately, though, accolades and notoriety don’t win football games. Production wins football games.
And when comparing the actual on-field production of Ramsey and Howard versus Gardner and Reed, it’s clear that Miami’s duo is vastly overrated and should not be in the conversation with New York’s duo.
It’s clear as day: Gardner and Reed were the far better duo in 2022.
Here are the average rankings of all four players across the 17 categories listed in the table above: 14th for Gardner, 26th for Reed, 33rd for Ramsey, and 47th for Howard. Combined, the Jets’ duo had an average ranking of 20th while the Dolphins’ duo had an average ranking of 40th.
When cold-hard facts are brought into this conversation, the debate ends immediately.
Prominent media members tend to ignore the fact that Ramsey and Howard struggled mightily in coverage last year. Among 82 qualified cornerbacks (min. 500 defensive snaps), they both ranked outside the top 50 in all five of these categories: yards allowed per cover snap, yards allowed per target, quarterback rating allowed when targeted, touchdowns allowed, and touchdowns allowed per cover snap.
Gardner and Reed both ranked top 20 in all five of those categories.
Howard is coming off a brutal season. He allowed the most yards per target of any qualified cornerback, coughing up 10.3 yards a pop when teams threw his way. While Ramsey wasn’t quite as poor, he still ranked 60th in that category with 8.3 yards per target. Worse, Ramsey tied for the second-most touchdowns allowed of any cornerback with seven, and Howard was not far behind with six touchdowns allowed.
That’s 9.3 yards per target and 13 touchdowns for Ramsey and Howard as a duo. Comparatively, Gardner and Reed combined for 5.0 yards per target and three touchdowns allowed.
The Jets also sweep the floor in the penalty department. Ramsey and Howard combined for 13 penalties last season while Gardner and Reed combined for seven. Howard had seven by himself.
In fairness, Ramsey and Howard deserve credit for their on-ball playmaking, as they both ranked well in passes defended and forced incompletions. But that hardly matters when they still allowed a plethora of yardage and touchdowns anyway. And as good as they were in those categories, they didn’t still outplay Gardner and Reed, who combined for more passes defended (32 to 30) and forced incompletions (31 to 26) all while allowing far fewer yards and touchdowns.
Ramsey and Howard also deserve credit for their top-ranked run defense. They take the edge over New York’s duo in this area, as Gardner was considered good-not-great while Reed’s run defense was the only blemish on his resume. It was an outlier for Reed, as he was a consistently excellent run defender prior to 2022.
Overall, though, Gardner and Reed outplayed Ramsey and Howard in just about every meaningful category last season. Combined, Gardner and Reed recorded better numbers than Ramsey and Howard in 13 of the 17 categories seen in the table above, with the only exceptions being the two categories related to interceptions and the two related to run defense.
In most of the categories where Gardner and Reed had the advantage, the disparity was enormous – especially in the allowed-in-coverage categories, which are arguably the most important metrics for evaluating cornerbacks.
The hype for Ramsey and Howard is based entirely on name recognition. I don’t think people are bothering to do their research and see how well these two players actually performed in 2022 – not that a lack of research is anything new for the national media or Pro Bowl voters.
If Pro Bowl voters did their research, neither Ramsey nor Howard would have made the Pro Bowl in 2022.
Howard making the Pro Bowl over Reed was an utter disgrace. Based on his production, Howard didn’t deserve to sniff the Pro Bowl. It’s yet another example of the Pro Bowl being nothing more than a popularity contest.
Ramsey’s Pro Bowl appearance in the NFC was also questionable. Philadelphia’s James Bradberry may have been the second-best cornerback in the entire league behind Gardner (at least that’s my opinion, based on the data), and not only did he miss out on the initial Pro Bowl selections, but Ramsey was actually chosen as an injury replacement over Bradberry.
But all history will say is that Ramsey and Howard were Pro Bowlers in 2022 while the Jets only had one Pro Bowl cornerback, and that’s probably the only piece of information a lot of media members and fans are looking at to form their opinions.
For now, the Gardner-Reed duo beats out the Ramsey-Howard duo without much of a fight, but things can change
Could things change in 2023? Absolutely. Howard and Ramsey possess elite talent and are certainly capable of forging bounce-back years, especially now that they will enjoy the luxury of playing alongside one another. Conversely, there is a chance Gardner and Reed regress after enjoying shockingly outstanding seasons that soared beyond anyone’s realistic expectations.
However, the age factor reduces the odds of either duo changing trajectories in 2023. Ramsey will be 29 this season and Howard will be 30. While they definitely could bounce back, their ages decrease the likelihood of it happening. Cornerbacks tend to decline early; perhaps Ramsey and Howard have reached the downward slopes of their career arcs and 2022 was the first step. Meanwhile, Gardner will be 23 and Reed will be 27. Still in their primes, Gardner and Reed have a good chance of maintaining their excellence.
Until anything changes, Gardner and Reed should be considered a better cornerback duo than Ramsey and Howard. The NFL is often dubbed a “what have you done for me lately” league. While Ramsey and Howard were stars in the past, their on-field production in the most recent season simply does not compare to that of Gardner and Reed.
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Originally posted on Jets X-Factor