Secret Superstar: Chris Clemons
The 2012 Miami Dolphins stumbled out of the gates to a 1-3 record that included two heartbreaking overtime losses. From there, Miami would never seriously challenge for the playoffs and ended up finishing the season at 7-9. Rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill didn’t have the instant success of his rookie counterparts and it may have cost them a shot at the playoffs. The Tannehill-led offense struggled mightily, averaging only 18 points per game. This had to be especially frustrating for Dolphins fans considering how big of a success the defense was. They finished the season seventh in scoring defense and first in red-zone defense.
One of the strongest positional units on that defense was their two young safeties. During training camp the back end of the Dolphins defense was shrouded in uncertainty. Vontae Davis had just been traded and they were planning to start two completely unproven safeties in Reshad Jones and Chris Clemons. Prior to 2012, the duo had a combined 1,826 career snaps and only combined for 696 in 2011. Both came through in a big way as they would finish with the second-best combined value among safety pairs in our Performance Based Value metric.
While Jones got much the attention with his four interceptions, Clemons steadily put together a rock solid season that flew under the radar. Clemons wasn’t flashy, but he did what his job description called for and that was to patrol the deep zone and limit big plays. His +7.3 combined run and pass grade on 1,120 snaps was good enough to make him the Miami Dolphins Secret Superstar.
Clemons was drafted out of Clemson in the fifth round, 165th overall in the 2009 NFL draft. In the pre-draft lead-up he put on a show at the NFL Scouting Combine. The former Tiger measured in at 6-foot-0, 208-pounds, ran a 4.41 40-yard dash, and hit 19 bench reps at 225. Despite his prototypical measurables, Clemons was the 12th safety taken in the draft. The reason for that was his subpar college production. During the course of his career at Clemson he was routinely outplayed by fellow safety Michael Hamlin. Hamlin, coincidentally, was drafted just one spot after Clemons. Over the same four-year span, Hamlin had 14 career interceptions and 31 career passes defended compared to five and 15, respectively, for Clemons.
Clemons played 89 snaps as a backup his rookie season, but was then thrust into the starter role in 2010 after Gibril Wilson was released. That season he had his ups and downs, but was exposed most in coverage. He allowed five catches of over 30 yards and his below-average playmaking ability from his college days hadn’t improved. He finished the season with only one interception and four passes defended. It wasn’t a ringing success, but for a fifth round safety in just his second season he showed promise with an overall grade of -1.5.
Coming Through as a Starter
After riding the bench in 2011 and watching Jones and Tyrone Culver take the starting role, Clemons won his job back in 2012. Over the course of the season, he would stake his claim even further to his starting status. For the year he had the eighth-best yards per coverage snap among safeties at .35 and had only two legitimate coverage blunders all season. The first occurred on a 65-yard catch by Chris Givens in Week 6 where Clemons lost sight of Givens on a deep crossing route. The other was a 31-yard pass to Aaron Hernandez in Week 13 where Clemons bit on a run fake in man coverage.
While Clemons improved his coverage from 2010, he also drastically improved his run defense. This season he had 33 more solo tackles than in 2010 and his tackling efficiency increased dramatically from 6.5 (56th in 2010) to 12.3 (sixth in 2012). He did all this while playing 78% of his snaps from over eight yards away from the line of scrimmage.
Even though he enjoyed a successful season as the starter, Clemons still left a lot to be desired. His ball hawking skills on the back end were still subpar. Clemons had two picks (both off Mark Sanchez) and one pass defended. While he has the speed to cap the defense, he rarely used that speed to make plays on the ball. This will be his biggest obstacle moving forward on the path to being a not so secret superstar.
Clemons was a free agent this offseason and decided to return to Miami on a very intriguing ‘prove it’ deal. He signed a 1-year, $2.75m contract that puts him in the lower range among starting safeties not on rookie contracts. Our Performance Based Value system valued Clemons at $4m last season, but his two picks and one pass defended likely made the market very limited for him.
The safeties clearly weren’t the reason the Dolphins gave up the sixth-most passing yards last season. Of the 3,974 yards Miami allowed through the air, PFF only attributed 465 to Jones and Clemons. General Manager Jeff Ireland realized that this offseason and picked up cornerbacks Jamar Taylor and Will Davis in the in the second and third rounds. With such a young corps in the secondary, I would expect the almost 250 passing yards per game they allowed in 2012 to decline considerably in 2013 and the development of their Secret Superstar could be a big reason why.
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