Will Bobby McCain's injury history keep him from being successful at free safety for Dolphins?

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Miami Dolphins safety Bobby McCain on the field before a game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., on December 22, 2019. - John McCall/Sun Sentinel/TNS

Miami Dolphins defensive back Bobby McCain has always had a scrappy, underdog reputation — one which matches his physical style of play in the team’s secondary.

That style and mentality were a driving force behind McCain’s move from nickel cornerback to free safety last season, but the two shoulder injuries he suffered in the nine games he played in 2019 should make the franchise reconsider whether that’s the right spot for the 5-foot-11, 190-pound defensive back.

Safeties are typically bigger, which allows them to handle the physicality that comes with the position. But the emergence of spread offenses in the NFL has forced defensive coaches to experiment with moving cornerbacks to safety, safeties to linebacker and linebackers to the defensive line.

The problem with that approach is that not everyone’s body can handle it, and the fact McCain struggled with shoulder injuries could be a warning sign.

“It’s football. You can get hurt doing anything, making a simple tackle. Sometimes the easiest plays to make are the ones that hurt the most. It’s just football. Things happen,” said McCain, who had his second shoulder injury surgically repaired in November. “I went down, made a tackle and ended up hurting myself. That’s football. I’m not too stressed about that.”

That’s the right attitude to have, but if McCain can’t physically handle the position switch it could shorten his career.

McCain, who is entering his sixth season, is guaranteed $3 million of his $5.5 million salary in 2020 because of the shoulder injury he suffered last season, which he’s still rehabbing.

But once this season’s over, the Dolphins must decide if they’ll honor the 2021 and 2022 seasons on his contract, which are supposed to pay him $6.4 million in 2021 and $7 million in 2022 — none of which is guaranteed.

To secure those paydays McCain, who had 25 tackles and two interceptions as Miami’s starting free safety last season, must prove he’s worth the financial commitment.

The Dolphins do have options to replace him as one of the team’s two starting safeties if the team decides he’s better suited to play nickel cornerback.

Miami, which released Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones this offseason, added two veteran safeties, signing Clayton Fejedelem and Kavon Frazier, and drafted former Texas standout Brandon Jones in the third round.

The Dolphins also have Adrian Colbert and Steve Parker, who collectively started nine games last season, and Eric Rowe, who spent much of last season serving as a rover, splitting time at safety and cornerback.

The biggest question is what’s the right fit for MIami’s defense — which also added Byron Jones and first-round pick Noah Igbinoghene at cornerback — and for McCain?

“I’m a guy that can play any place in the backfield. With practice and time, everyone gets better,” said McCain, who started 32 games as a cornerback his first four seasons in the team’s nickel defense and on the boundary. “It’s not my decision to make decisions. I love doing what I do, and I can do it all.”

Coach Brian Flores values position versatility as much as he values toughness and intelligence, so the Dolphins have intentionally targeted players in free agency and the draft who can play more than one position — or fill multiple roles.

That’s how the New England Patriots — his former team — have built their rosters over the years, and its part of this regime’s blueprint.

“Versatility is very important for us. It allows us to kind of (be fluid). This isn’t like a quarterback where you play one spot. When you play multiple positions, that’s a good thing,” Flores said earlier this spring. “Being versatile and having the ability to move a guy like Bobby from safety to nickel, (having him play) different positions, that’s good.”


©2020 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)