Think back to training camp and the preseason. Of all the players that put themselves on display, one of the worst by far was cornerback Nik Needham. Regularly beaten in coverage, missing tackles, it seemed he could no right. Within two weeks, fans were tired of hearing his name. Usually, unless someone is making a big play, the less you a corner’s name, the better. Needham’s name was said a lot.
So, how in the world did an undrafted free agent who didn’t even make the final 53 man roster suddenly become one of Miami’s top defenders?
It starts with understanding the game on a deeper level.
“I think just the understanding of the game, as well as the understanding of the business side of things.” Needham said after Miami’s second loss to Buffalo, in which he spent most of the game shadowing wide receiver John Brown. “It’s not just a fun and games thing anymore … I think I’ve matured a lot, I’ve taken a lot of the information that the other guys and the coaches have gave me and just applied that.”
— Five Reasons Sports Network (@5ReasonsSports) November 17, 2019
Once more, we come back to the emphasis that head coach Brian Flores put on developing players in 2019. True, Sunday’s game against Buffalo ended in a loss, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Miami’s two wins against the Jets and the Colts came as a result of continued improvement from young players, Needham included. That serves as a testament to Flores and his staff. Taking a band of misfits and making them competitive from week to week.
However, there are still growing pains that comes with this approach. Needham did much better than expected, but he wasn’t perfect. He did allow Brown to break free on a couple of plays, one of which turned into a touchdown.
“Yeah it was Cover 2, but that was my fault. I’ve got to sink a little more. I’ve got to carry John Brown right there and be underneath him a little more and drift inside a little bit, so that was on me for sure.” Needham said. “It’s just a learning process but you’ve got to grow up quick because you don’t want to just be out there messing up all the time and then say ‘Oh, that’s a rookie.’ To me personally, that doesn’t feel good. People saying, ‘It’s alright.’ No, it’s not alright. If I’m out here, I need to be out here performing at my best and at a high level.”
Again, no one expected Nik Needham to be as good as he is right now. They expected his career in the league to be over after the pitiful performance he displayed in preseason. But players who want to succeed find ways to learn from everything, even his opponents. New York Jets WR Demaryius Thomas offered some valuable insight not too long ago, telling the rookie out of UTEP that he could recognize what Needham was going to do on any given play.
That message, along with many others, resonates with Needham. That’s the difference between players who have potential, and players who develop into solid contributors. To some extent, all players have potential, it’s what they do with it that matters. Needham is taking everything in stride, including the recent onslaught of praise he’s receiving. That’s exactly what coach Flores wants from all his players. That’s how he envisions players continue to grow and not stagnate.
“You forget about everything you’d done. You forget about the last couple games or you forget about any success you had.” Flores said on Thursday. “I know he’s getting – I don’t know much about social media, but people are saying he’s this or that or (any of that). Your friends, your family, they’re going to congratulate you. That’s great. But if you start listening to all that too much and – I don’t know. Maybe it’s one minute less on one more text and (it’s) one minute less on film. You’ve got to try to put that away and focus on the task at hand.”
Flores didn’t talk much more about it that day, since he felt the need to call out a member of the media for laughing at his statement. Nevertheless, the message was received, and it seems to be working.
Nik Needham is developing faster than anyone could have anticipated. He’s already deflected six passes in six games for Miami, and come away with an interception against the Colts, and nearly another one against Buffalo. Does this mean he can be the clear-cut number two cornerback alongside Xavien Howard next season? That will require much more time to decide. If nothing else, Nik Needham is proving he can be an excellent backup in a young secondary, and he should be considered a success for this new regime. At this point, there’s no telling what his ceiling could be.
Luis Sung has covered the Miami Dolphins for numerous outlets such as Dolphins Wire for six years. Follow him on Twitter: @LuisDSung