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Dolphins safety Jevon Holland eyes 2022 breakout: 'I do want offenses to fear me'

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Miami Dolphins second-year player Jevon Holland -- affectionately known as "Snowman" by teammates due to his jersey number (8) -- aligned as the single-high safety on a first-quarter play that would quickly change the momentum of the team's season opener against the Patriots.

Holland and his teammates were playing Cover 1 blitz, an attack defense, with New England deep in Miami territory. Patriots quarterback Mac Jones took the snap and barely hesitated before throwing a deep pass down the right side of the field, where he had receiver DeVante Parker running to the end zone in one-on-one coverage against cornerback Xavien Howard. Holland traveled 27 yards, per Next Gen Stats, to be in position to catch the ball -- tipped into the air by Howard -- then returned it 31 yards.

The interception knocked 16 percentage points off New England's win probability, per NGS, in a game the Dolphins would go on to win, 20-7. It was also a splash play to kick off what many are predicting will be a breakout Year 2 for Holland. It was Howard's superb man-to-man coverage on Parker that prevented a touchdown, and Holland's range, hustle and knack for the football that turned it into an interception.

"It's a tip drill. ... We always tell each other if you break up a pass, tip it up," Holland told me in the locker room after the game. "This is just the beginning. We'll keep stacking these days together."

Howard often says of his pairing with Holland, "when the ball's in the air, it's either my ball or his ball. That's how we play it."

Inside the locker room, 20 minutes after the Dolphins closed out the victory behind a dominant, three-turnover performance by the defense, Holland was given celebratory daps by several teammates and fielded an array of reporters' questions about nabbing the interception.

Moments later, he was animatedly telling me he's more focused on a potential fourth-quarter interception he feels like he missed by hesitating for a second. Holland said he doesn't want to waste any opportunities, because this is his year.

Holland is intentional and unapologetic about his 2022 goal to "make offenses fear me." He wants teams to treat No. 8 like an elite safety when they make their game plans. He's not afraid to call his shot, and, according to my conversations with Dolphins players and coaches, his proclamations don't make people at team headquarters blink an eye. They believe in him.

Holland, 22, is already growing into a leader and defensive catalyst, as evidenced by the fact he is the youngest of the team's seven captains. The 2021 second-round pick out of Oregon has grown in confidence and status so much that two executives I spoke to projected him as the next Dolphins defender to join Howard as a Pro Bowl selectee.

Holland: 'My time is now'

Back in February, a cold wind whistled along the sideline during a Pro Bowl practice in Las Vegas. The weather let us know we were clearly not in Miami anymore.

Howard was the Dolphins' lone Pro Bowl participant, marking the third time over the last four seasons that Howard was the only Miami defender represented in the game. But the Dolphins decided to also send Holland -- coming off his rookie season -- as a team media correspondent, so he could get a taste of the moment.

During a down period before practice, Howard prophesied to Holland "that time is going to come for you. That time is going to come." Holland shook his head in affirmation, but he was fuming inside.

"In my head, I'm like, 'My time is now.' I should've been there. The level of play I know I can be at, I could've done more. That's how I see the game. I left too many plays on the table," Holland told me earlier this month, recalling his emotions in that moment. "Maybe I was too immature, or I didn't understand the scheme well enough, or I didn't have my feet under me, or I was a little nervous. The bottom line is, I didn't take advantage of the opportunities I had. That's why I was with the media instead of on the field.

"Now in Year 2, I understand a lot more. I can be closer to those plays. I'm more comfortable. I'm determined to be there as a player next time."

Over the second half of the 2021 season, Holland emerged as one of Miami's best players. Playing primarily deep safety -- but with the versatility to line up at four or five other spots in a pinch -- Holland helped the Dolphins win eight of their last nine games while ranking as a top-five defense in that period.

"Jevon wants to be a leader of this defense. ... Jevon relishes it. Guys respect him." -- Patrick Surtain

"Jevon Holland has a chance to be one of the best safeties in the league. You guys see it. We see it. Everybody sees it," said defensive assistant Patrick Surtain, a three-time Pro Bowler with the Dolphins during his playing career. "If we're going to get to where we want to get, we need him to play like that."

Surtain continued: "He's the quarterback of the defense. The special guys have those elements. This is a fairly young team. Jevon wants to be a leader of this defense. Elandon Roberts is the clear one now. But there's room for more. Jevon relishes it. Guys respect him. He doesn't say much. But when he talks, it's like EF Hutton. People listen."

Dolphins safeties coach Steve Gregory said Holland can be "great." Not good, great. Those are Holland's expectations, too.

Holland could be seen during training camp coaching up more experienced players who might have been out of position on a play, and he helped deliver play calls to others. Roberts, a linebacker, is the most vocal member of the Dolphins' defense, but Holland is emerging as a strong second leader.

Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said it "blows my mind" that Holland is a 22-year-old second-year pro, given how he carries himself on and off the field. But it didn't surprise him at all when Holland was named the team's youngest captain.

"The football world is in front of him," McDaniel said. "That is great news for the Miami Dolphins when there's an alignment between talent and respect."

'I'm not afraid of the hype'

From my view of Miami practices this summer, no Dolphins defender had a better camp than Holland. He was an interception monster. No matter how well you think he played in 2021, I can attest that Holland looked two times better in camp. That's why, when people discuss second-year breakout candidates, Holland should be on the list.

"I do want offenses to fear me. I'm not afraid to say that," Holland said. "Not in a cocky way. I'm not even talking about quarterbacks. I'm talking about coaches. I want to be somebody who offensive coordinators game plan for because I'm disruptive, like, 'I don't want to test this guy.' I want them to know where I am at all times, like they plan for Aaron Donald. That's my mindset. That's who I want myself to become, so I speak it a lot."

The main element Holland worked to improve this summer was his play recognition. He tells me he lined up 20 yards deep too often in 2021, because he was nervous. His mindset was, "I don't want to get beat deep." But going into Year 2, Holland said he's learned what depth to align himself at based on the offensive formation, vocalize what he's seeing and trust his teammates more when playing man to man.

Holland soaks up wisdom provided by the former NFL defensive backs on the Dolphins' coaching staff, from Surtain to Gregory to cornerbacks coach/pass game specialist Sam Madison to special teams assistant Ricardo Allen, who gives him play-recognition drills to work on. Holland said that quartet, along with defensive coordinator Josh Boyer, who coached Patriots defensive backs for over a decade before joining the Miami staff in 2019, provides "a wealth of DB knowledge" and that he can "use pieces of everyone to create my own style."

Gregory said his main teaching points for Holland this summer were to grow in his recognition of defenses and stay humble in the midst of people catching on to Holland's game. Holland promises he is a believer in karma, so he won't get high based on his own headlines, but he makes clear he isn't running from it, either.

"I've heard the biggest jump is Year 1 to Year 2. I'm not afraid of that. I'm not afraid of the hype," Holland said. "The hype is going to be here regardless. I'm going to keep grinding."

The night Holland was drafted by Miami, then-Dolphins head coach Brian Flores called him "one of my favorite players to watch" throughout the draft process. Lenny McGill, the Dolphins' West Coast scout at the time, had done his due diligence on Holland's background and quickly realized Holland was as much of a culture changer on the Oregon defense as quarterback Justin Herbert -- selected sixth overall by the Chargers one year earlier -- had been for the Ducks' offense.

"He was one of my all-time favorites as a person and a player," said McGill, who's now a senior national scout for the Las Vegas Raiders. "I wanted to bring him on the plane to Miami immediately after I met him."

McGill said Flores was an early believer in Holland's versatility but he had to work a little harder to sell him to some in the scouting department over another top-rated safety prospect, TCU's Tre’von Moehrig, because Holland played on the West Coast, where games often went late into the night for those on the East Coast, and therefore drew fewer eyeballs. Also, Holland had opted out of the 2020 season amid the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Ultimately, once all the draft evaluations were completed, the Dolphins reached a general consensus about Holland -- in addition to his versatility, his character and football intelligence were among the traits that stood out to Flores and GM Chris Grier -- and Miami selected him 36th overall, seven picks before Moehrig went to the Raiders. Grier told reporters on the night they drafted Holland that they "were really excited" and "nervous" that he was going to be picked earlier "because there were a lot of people that really like this player." But Miami did get him, and Holland has been a home run pick thus far.

"We're lucky to have Jevon. He wants to be great. He wants the challenge of being that guy," Surtain said. "He's going to get it. He's a special guy, and we expect special things from him."

The X-Man and the Snowman

Holland has a vision of one day soon teaming with the 29-year-old Howard to form what is considered the NFL's best safety-cornerback duo. Holland said the Los Angeles Chargers' tandem of Derwin James and J.C. Jackson holds that title now, but he's determined to reach their level.

"That would be pretty cool. It's all on me. X (Howard) is already there. The pressure is on me to get to his level," Holland said. "I thrive off that pressure. I love that pressure. I'd rather it be on me than somebody else. If I do mess up, I have something to work on. If I don't, then we'll celebrate it. That pressure is fuel; you might as well lean into it."

Clearly, Holland is confident in his ability, but many others see the same potential in him, including Howard.

"The sky's the limit for that guy," Howard said. "You can see him fly to the ball. Everything you see him do, you feel like he's been here for like 10 years."

Holland recently has emerged as the voice of the Dolphins' secondary both on and off the field. He's regularly seen coaching up players. Meanwhile, Howard helps players behind the scenes with technique and tips and remains the team's best defender. Despite a contrast in leadership styles, both Holland and Howard were voted first-time captains by their teammates this summer.

But Holland isn't afraid to tell Howard if he's out of position or playing the wrong assignment. He established that early on. During a joint practice versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year, Howard missed an assignment and, Howard said recently, Holland chirped at him for his mistake. Initially, Howard was upset. After all, Howard is the player in this defense, and Holland was a rookie. But Howard grew to respect Holland's boldness and vocal way of keeping everyone, including himself, accountable.

"We definitely grew a lot from that moment. He's my mentor and peer at the same time," Holland said. "He never ignores me if I'm trying to give him a tip, like I'm the young one. He's never condescending when he gives tips. He always listens. He's like that with everyone."

During a locker room conversation earlier this month that focused primarily on Holland and Howard, Holland saw one of his closest friends and teammates, safety Brandon Jones, walk by. It reminded him to make a point about the overall depth of Miami's defense -- one he believes can become a top-five unit -- and specifically talk up what the Holland-Jones duo can accomplish together. Holland came in one draft class after Jones, but the two have grown extremely close in a way Jones says is hard to explain, given that it happened so naturally. Jones, 24, said he considers himself and Holland a younger version of the Buffalo Bills' safety tandem of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, remarking that they watched film of the duo (who are both 31) regularly last season.

A superpower of the Dolphins' safety tandem is their ability to bring pressure off the edge. Jones and Holland ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in pass rushes and QB pressures by defensive backs in 2021, per NGS. That capability is an important asset for a Dolphins team that had the NFL's highest blitz rate last year.

In the Week 1 win over the Patriots, Jones' prowess as a pass rusher changed the game. Left unblocked off the edge midway through the second quarter, Brandon Jones sacked Mac Jones just 2.14 seconds after the snap -- it was the fastest sack of Week 1, and it would have been the fifth-fastest sack the entire 2021 season. Brandon Jones forced a fumble on the play, and the loose ball was recovered by Dolphins edge rusher Melvin Ingram, who ran it in for a touchdown. The play cost New England 15.5 percentage points in win probability, according to NGS.

Looking ahead to Miami's Week 2 matchup against the Baltimore Ravens, that pass-rush talent could be front and center once again. When the Dolphins and Ravens met in Week 10 on a Thursday night last season, Miami sent Holland and Jones on a combined 38 pass rushes in a 22-10 win. Holland (21) and Jones (17) each rushed the passer more times than any defensive back in a game in the NGS era (since 2016).

The national TV performance was an eye-opener, but the buzz for Miami coming out of the game was dampened by the team's 3-7 record at the time. If Holland, Jones and the Dolphins' defense once again shut down the Ravens' offense and lead the team to a 2-0 start, it will be hard for anyone to ignore what's going on in Miami.

NFL offenses might not fear Holland yet. Howard and Holland aren't considered the NFL's top cornerback-safety duo yet. The Dolphins' defense isn't widely regarded as a top-five unit yet. But Holland isn't afraid to call his own shot because he believes his time -- and his teammates' time -- is now.

Follow Cameron Wolfe on Twitter.

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