Even the most serious football fans might get a little glassy-eyed by the time the fifth round of the NFL Draft rolls around, because by that point, the draft is the epitome of a crapshoot, with the odds against finding long-term gems, as Miami did over the years with Zach Thomas and Bryan Cox and Reshad Jones.
But during one 40 minute stretch on the third day of the 2015 Draft, the Dolphins plucked three fifth-rounders who are playing a lot: Bobby McCain (who’s becoming a capable slot corner), Jay Ajayi (only the fourth player in NFL history with consecutive 200-yard rushing games) and Tony Lippett (who’s starting but must play better, according to his defensive coordinator).
Last week, a source involved with that draft walked me that productive 40-minute stretch:
• After acquiring the 145th and 156th picks from Philadelphia a day earlier, the Dolphins concluded McCain was the obvious choice at 145, not only because of his ball-hawking productivity in college (12 interceptions, four touchdowns) but because his Combine numbers were “off the charts,” including a 36-inch vertical jump and 10 ½ inch broad jump.
They loved his quickness, competitiveness and saw him as a natural slot corner, and everyone internally was in agreement that Miami needed to take him at 145, more so because they thought Ajayi would be there at 149.
Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who did great work with defensive backs in Cincinnati, arrived in Miami eight months later and “he said he saw something in me and knows I can play,” McCain said.
“That confidence was big. He preached to me that technique and playing with leverage would be huge, and my technique definitely is improved this year.”
McCain has gotten better as the season has progressed and Pro Football Focus rates him 54th of 112 qualifying cornerbacks.
• The fifth-rounder the Dolphins acquired when they shipped Mike Wallace to Minnesota earlier that offseason seemed like a pittance for a former Pro Bowler. But that pick ended up being Ajayi.
The Dolphins didn’t hesitate to take Ajai at 149; they graded him higher than a fifth-rounder and weren’t at all worried about the knee issues that scared away some other teams.
We’re told they especially liked three of the 12 backs that went before him: first-rounder Todd Gurley (403 yards for Rams this season, but just 3.0 per carry), second-rounder Ameer Abdullah (out since Week 3 with a foot injury for Detroit) and third-rounder David Johnson (705 yards, 4.5 per carry for Arizona).
There was some support inside the Dolphins’ draft room for Minnesota’s David Cobb, who went 11 picks before Ajayi, but more support for Ajayi than Cobb. Good thing, because Cobb was released by Tennessee after one season and is now on Chicago’s practice squad.
And this also was a big factor with the Ajayi pick: Adam Engroff, a highly-respected Dolphins scout, lives in Boise, is friends with Chris Peterson (who coached Ajayi at Boise), got very good feedback on Ajayi and strongly advocated him to Dolphins executive Mike Tannenbaum and the rest of the front office.
Dolphins officials loved that Ajayi looked like an NFL runner -- big, physical and better as the game went on.
Fast forward: Not only is Ajayi leading the league in per carry average (6.4) and yards after contact, but on carries when he gets good blocking, he’s averaging an incredible 11.4 yards, ESPN’s KC Joyner tells us.
“That’s elite,” Joyner said. “Last year, only Todd Gurley and Doug Martin finished at 10 or above.” (Ajayi was 8th in good blocking average last year at 9.0.)
By contrast, Arian Foster had a 3.9 good blocking average before retiring.
This has really helped, too: A few weeks ago, Ajayi told coach Adam Gase the three runs he likes the most, and Gase has been calling them. “He was very receptive and took notes,” Ajayi said.
• Safety Cedric Thompson, the pick at 150 (Miami’s own pick in that round), never made it here or later in New England and is now with the Vikings practice squad.
• The Dolphins came back, six picks later, with Lippett, who is trying to hold onto his starting job.
The Dolphins thought he would be an NFL journeyman as a receiver (which he played most of his career at Michigan State) but saw great potential in him as a cornerback, especially after Ron Labadie, a Dolphins’ scout who has since retired, watched him blanket Penn State receivers in a game his senior season and pushed him to Tannenbaum and then-GM Dennis Hickey.
Miami’s front office liked his length, ball skills, size (6-3) and intelligence, and comparisons to Sean Smith and other big corners were raised inside Miami’s draft room.
The Dolphins --- who tried to keep secret their interest in making Lippett a corner -- didn’t have a strong conviction about any of the other corners still on the board at that pick; they liked Josh Shaw, who went a round earlier and has started for Cincinnati this season.
And Joseph, Lippett said, “has made me a smarter player and a more aware player. He makes me think about stuff at a level that I never really thought about.”
Joseph is challenging Lippett, telling our Armando Salguero this week that he “needs to play better.”
Lippett is rated 51st among 112 cornerbacks by PFF but has a 120.4 passer rating in his coverage area. If he doesn’t play well Sunday against the Jets, Chris Culliver or Bene Benwikere could take his job.
But the Dolphins still see considerable upside with Lippett, viewing him as a multi-year project.
So kudos to the Dolphins for finding three contributors in the fifth round of that 2015 Draft.
It will be interesting to see how Ajayi, McCain and Lippett develop from here.
• The Dolphins promoted tight end Thomas Duarte from the practice squad and activated linebacker Zach Vigil off NFi to fill two open roster spots, one created today when Jordan Cameron went on season-ending IR with concussion issues.
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