Miami Dolphins safety Xavien Howard looks forward to match up with Bengals star receiver “A.J.” Green.
The Miami Dolphins have been doing good work convincing young players to stay engaged and excited and motivated about what they’re doing. Nowhere is that more true than with defensive end Charles Harris and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley.
Both players have been on the listening end of multiple pep talks and uplifting messages in recent weeks from team personnel. The purpose is to keep the players’ heads in their assignments and, frankly, their jobs.
And it has generally worked.
Ask Harris, the first-round pick of the 2017 draft, how he’s doing and playing and it seems he takes a page from one of those positives talks.
“Good. Real good,” Harris says, assessing his level of play so far this season. “Shoot, I’m playing faster. Playing way faster than last year. I’m seeing who’s got the ball and getting to the ball.”
Tankersley, the third-round pick of the 2017 draft, also shows a confident side that was part of the reason the Dolphins liked him so much coming out of Clemson.
You might recall the last time Tankersley made news was back in the preseason when he got lit up against the Carolina Panthers and afterward said he had “played like garbage.”
Well, he was striking a different chord on Wednesday.
“Everyone is talking about the Carolina game but it wasn’t like I was blowing stuff,” he said. “They were making great catches. I’ve matured as a player. I have to finish.”
All this is good because the Dolphins find themselves in a situation where both players need to contribute.
For Tankersley, the situation is such that he might be asked to play against Cincinnati on Sunday because starting cornerback Bobby McCain is out 2-to-3 weeks with a knee injury. Tankersley said he and Torry McTyer split repetitions with the starting defense at McCain’s cornerback spot on Wednesday.
For Harris, the Dolphins need him to step up because Andre Branch is about to miss his second consecutive game with a knee injury, William Hayes is out for the season and Cameron Wake is playing with a knee injury that has limited him in practice since last week. So there’s a need at defensive end.
The interesting thing is even as both Harris and Tankersley should be stepping into greater roles that have been basically thrust upon them by team need, neither has really earned a greater workload. At least not before this week.
Last week, Tankersley was active for only the second time this season and played exclusively on special teams. In a game McCain left after 41 snaps because of the knee injury, Tankersley did not touch the field at all on defense.
The Dolphins instead turned to former undrafted free agent McTyer to fill in. McTyer finished the game with 52 snaps, or 61 percent of the plays the defense was on the field.
Obviously, McTyer early on this season passed Tankersley on the depth chart despite the fact Tankersley last year started 11 games.
For Harris the story is similar. He played 34 plays against the New England Patriots. But Jonathan Woodard played 37 plays.
Woodard had been added from the practice squad to the Miami 53-man roster only four days earlier. Sunday was his first NFL game.
So reading what the Dolphins did -- which is always more important than what they say -- Woodard was deemed more helpful to the cause of winning the game than Harris.
A player coming off the practice squad passed a former first-round draft pick in playing time.
It seems, however, the Dolphins don’t want anyone thinking that’s what happened.
“That’s kind of one of those things where when you play New England, you have to be careful about your substitutions,” Gase said. “I thought [defensive line coach] Kris (Kocurek) did a good job of making sure that we didn’t get caught with 12 guys on the field because if they don’t sub and you try to sub, now you’re asking for trouble. You’re going to get 12, 13 guys on the field and you’re going to have a problem.
“I think he got caught kind of in that little game that gets played to where that was not a planned deal to where it was said that this guy is going to get this many snaps. It just kind of worked out that way in the game.”
I don’t really follow the logic because somehow Woodard didn’t get caught in the terrible vortex of circumstances that swallowed Harris despite playing in the same game.
So it doesn’t make sense to me that one guy is on the sideline because of substitution issues but the other guy got more play in the game despite, you know, the same substitutions issues.
The Dolphins are thinking Woodard might be better. After all, he had three solo tackles in the game. And Harris only had one.
Indeed, Harris has one solo tackle all season.
He had zero solos against Tennessee.
Zero against the New York Jets.
Zero against Oakland.
He also has zero sacks so far.
All that is saying something because the Miami defense has played a whopping 279 snaps in four games. That’s almost 70 snaps per game.
And Harris has just one more solo tackle than you do.
(He has seven assists).
Tankersley, meanwhile, has been fighting in practice to stay relevant after being inactive for two games.
“He’s working and he’s trying to get better,” Gase said. “I think he’s trying to challenge on the scout team or if he’s getting reps with the first-team defense, he’s trying to challenge guys, get hands on them and stay tight in coverage.
“That’s what he just needs to keep doing. I think he’s really trying to make a major push to contribute on special teams. I know he’s taking that very seriously and he’s trying to basically break through the door and just keep trying to get those guys’ attention.”
But make no mistake, the idea that Tankersley -- again, a starter in 11 games last season -- would make that impressive leap in Year 2 to full-time starter has not materialized. On the contrary.
“Sometimes guys come in and they go past you and it’s a battle,” Gase said. “It could be one phase or the other. We feel good about him at corner and we need him to improve on special teams. Now, it might come up to where he plays. If he plays at corner, I’m good. And I think his special teams has improved, so we could use him there.”
And now let me simply say what you’re probably thinking:
Firstly, good job by the Dolphins in finding guys like McTyer and Woodard who are figuring in the plans when the need arises.
Secondly, the 2017 first-round draft pick and the third-round pick are not currently trending well and that’s disappointing.
They players are staying positive. And the team is staying positive about them. But both players have so far been lacking in the contribution department.
That needs to change.
Or we’re headed to bust city.