When the Miami Dolphins begin their annual three-day minicamp on Tuesday — the most significant trio of workout days before training camp begins in late July — there will be one area of the team that will be under the microscope more than others because that area has become a concern for the organization.
The weakest area on the defense.
NFL teams can never have enough good cornerbacks. And the Dolphins may not have even the minimal number.
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Miami's good ones? The Dolphins are enthusiastic that Xavien Howard can pick up where he left off in late 2017 as a top tier defender. On a team that talks about competition and wants to give the sense everyone must compete for a job, Howard is a lock at one starting cornerback spot.
But that's it. End of cornerback locks.
Everyone else is covered in uncertainty.
Bobby McCain, who last week signed a contract extension through the 2022 season, is clearly valued by the team. His representation portrayed the contract as the highest for any NFL slot cornerback.
But Miami's outside cornerback situation is such that McCain might have to move outside to fill a role considered more taxing than the slot cornerback job. That's because McCain might be the best and most consistent answer to playing outside in the base defense opposite Howard.
So, yes, the Dolphins are so desperate for someone to step up as their No. 2 cornerback that they're letting (pressing?) their starting slot corner to vie for the starting job outside.
(Remember when the team tried to solve a similar situation in 2015 with Brice McCain?)
And this is where you're thinking ...
What's the problem with Bobby McCain outside?
And what about Cordrea Tankersley?
And what about Tony Lippett?
McCain on the outside is clearly not where he earned his reputation. He has been excellent in the slot as his new deal suggests. But put him outside, covering the most elite receivers in the NFL rather than slot receivers, and that presents the possibility for mismatches.
Also, moving McCain outside creates a hole at slot cornerback, so suddenly an uncertain solution to one problem gives rise to a new problem.
The Dolphins might then find themselves asking rookie Minkah Fitzpatrick, a safety who played some slot at the University of Alabama, to fill that vacant slot corner role. Or they might use McCain outside in base and move him to the slot in nickel, which means they still need an outside corner in nickel.
All that juggling means the Dolphins are going to face mismatches they might not be comfortable seeing from down to down.
Well, what about Lippett and Tankersley? Haven't both of them started games for the team in the past and been good enough?
Well, yes. Sort of.
The truth is both players have started games, with Lippett's experience coming mostly in 2016 and Tankersley last year as a rookie. But both were surprise starters pushed into their roles when another player failed. Indeed, both were pushed into their roles when Byron Maxwell failed in 2016 and then one last time in '17.
So what's the problem?
Lippett, in his fourth season, is still recovering from an Achilles injury and the eventual surgery to repair the tear. He has been working in OTA practices but it hasn't been seamless. Last week, suffering soreness and pain, Lippett had to sit out the final couple of days of practice. His status for minicamp will become more clear as his body responds to treatment while he battles back from a serious injury.
“Sure, it’s serious, but he’s been working hard," Dolphins new defensive backs coach Tony Oden said. "Our training staff has done a phenomenal job with him and just as equally, he’s done a phenomenal job. He’s in here every day. Even when I first got here, he was here every day.
"He’s done his part and the training staff is doing its part. I just have to do my part as a coach to get him in there and get him used to being in there. He’s on track to do good things.”
The question on Lippett is whether the team can take on a faith project that requires believing everything will sort itself out. That means Lippett has to come back from a serious injury and then play as well or better as 2016 when he was trying to establish himself as a solid starter.
(Lippett had some good moments that season, like the San Diego game. But he also had some bad moments like the playoff game at Pittsburgh).
Tankersley, a third-round pick in 2017, started 11 games for the Dolphins as a rookie. He collected 31 total tackles without an interception. Pro Football Focus rated Tankersley the No. 93-rated cornerback in the NFL.
The thing with Tankersley is that he offers second-year improvement and the hope he can grow into the starting job. The other thing with Tankersley is there's been little evidence of that second-year improvement as he's been inconsistent in OTA practices.
“Well, we all have areas to improve," Oden said when asked about Tankersley. "I told those guys that about myself. I try to improve every day and be a better coach. We want to improve 1 percent every day and add that up.
"So specific things, I don’t want to get into specifics on what he needs to improve on; but there’s always a little bit of meat on the bones for improvement, whether it be eye discipline or anything. He’s improving. He knows it. He works hard. Anything I’ve ever asked him to do or any of the other guys to do so far, they’ve been right on it. I’ve got zero complaints about the group, about the effort or energy level they bring every day.”
The Dolphins have been experimenting to find someone capable of starting opposite Howard.
That experiment has included a lot of McCain.
Some praying might also help.
But the good news is the team got a $17 million salary cap windfall that hit the books on June 1 based on the release of Ndamukong Suh. The Dolphins utilized some of that cap space to sign McCain. The team also will use the space to finish signing the remainder of its draft picks — something executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum is trying to do as quickly as possible.
A portion of the remaining cap space beyond that will be left for emergencies. And, without doubt, a portion will be available if the Dolphins can find a cornerback upgrade between now and the start of the regular season in September.
The meaty part of free agency is over and all the talent left is considered table scraps.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie remains unsigned as do Adam Jones and Jeremy Lane. Jones will be 35 in September and is primarily a slot cornerback. Rodgers-Cromartie, 32, is available because he declined a pay cut from the New York Giants after a subpar 2017. And Lane's status is uncertain because the NFL is looking into a guilty plea on a reckless driving charge after he was arrested in January for DUI. That issue could fall under the league's conduct policy.
Beyond that, all teams continue to make adjustments to their rosters. And there will be camp cuts before the regular season. So lots of things can still happen.
That's good because the Dolphins are still trying to fill their need for a No. 2 starting cornerback.