Barry Jackson

Dolphins’ young cornerbacks emerging, though one wasn’t sure he wanted to play CB

Miami Dolphins defensive back Tony Lippett blocks a pass intended for New England Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell during a Jan. 3, 2016, game at Sun Life Stadium.
Miami Dolphins defensive back Tony Lippett blocks a pass intended for New England Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell during a Jan. 3, 2016, game at Sun Life Stadium. adiaz@miamiherald.com

The Dolphins, not so long ago, had a promising pair of young cornerbacks, Vontae Davis and Sean Smith, but regrettably and somewhat inexplicably parted ways with both.

Rookie Xavien Howard and second-year pro Tony Lippett have a long way to go before they can be considered on the level of Davis and Smith.

But Howard and Lippett at least have a chance to become what the Dolphins once thought they had in Davis and Smith, and once hoped they would have with second-day draft picks Jamar Taylor and Will Davis but ultimately did not – a pair of young, building-block corners.

Howard and Lippett had some of their finest moments in Saturday’s Jets game. Lippett picked off two passes, made at least three nifty plays in coverage and didn’t allow a single catch on 55 snaps of coverage.

Howard allowed just three catches on 10 targets and “absolutely played as well as I’ve ever seen him play since he has been with us,” coach Adam Gase said.

After missing nine games after knee surgery, the Dolphins expected Howard to play fewer than 20 snaps on Saturday. But when Byron Maxwell left with an ankle injury, Howard was pressed into playing 68 of Miami’s 76 defensive plays.

“It seems like he didn’t miss a beat,” Lippett said of Howard.

Privately, the Dolphins believe Howard can be a legitimate No. 1 corner, a player with Pro Bowl potential.

“He was born to be a corner,” Maxwell has said of Howard. “He’s just athletic. It’s a natural gift.”

Lippett, meanwhile, is now tied for sixth in the NFL with four interceptions, and only three cornerbacks have more than that – San Diego’s Casey Hayward (seven), Buffalo’s Stephen Gilmore (five) and Kansas City’s Marcus Peters (five).

What’s more, he’s the first Dolphins cornerback since 1999 to have two games with two picks in the same season.

“He’s leaps and bounds better” than during the summer, Maxwell said. “You can see the game starting to slow down for him. Him having that offensive background is definitely helping him.”

Speaking with two reporters on Sunday, Lippett revealed that he “didn’t want to be a cornerback” when the Dolphins drafted him in the fifth round in 2015. He played mostly receiver at Michigan State, though he played cornerback as a freshman and some cornerback as a senior.

Miami Dolphins coach Adam Gase talks with the media about quarterback Matt Moore's game performance with the team's 34-13 victory over the New York Jets Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016, at MetLife Stadium. Moore had a career-high four touchdown passes.

But after the Dolphins drafted him, Dolphins executive Mike Tannenbaum and then-general manager Dennis Hickey told him they were moving him to cornerback.

“They said, ‘You got a long body and you’ve played cornerback and we are going to coach you playing cornerback,’” Lippett recalled. “I wanted to be a wide receiver. But I wasn’t going to say no. I kind of like challenges.”

But the transition wasn’t easy, and Lippett said “a few times, during my rookie year, in OTAs, and a little bit in the season, I thought I don’t like it. But I said you’ve got to grind and deal with it. Then I thought, this is where I’m going to be.”

Lippett was especially proud of his first interception Saturday, when he grabbed the ball away from Jets receiver Robby Anderson.

“Anderson was getting a lot of buzz around New York,” Lippett said. “I told myself if I get a chance to do that again, I’ve got to come down with the ball.”

Lippett also did good work covering Brandon Marshall.

“I was over Marshall a lot,” Lippett said. “To me, he’s a Hall of Fame player. Knows how to use his body. I was trying to stay in front of him, be physical with him, compete and battle. He wasn’t saying too much to me. I thought he would try to get in my head, which he wasn’t going to do anyway.”

Lippett said he has been working to improve on covering slants – a play that Baltimore and others have victimized him – and said defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has helped mold him into a much improved player.

“He helped me understand the defense more,” Lippett said. “He helped me understand where I need to be. He helped me understand where my help is. He helped me understand leverage, that’s the main thing. The more he harps on it, the more I see it.”

Gase admires Lippett’s diligence: “He’s done a great job as far as staying with what he’s being coached to do. He’s fought through little adversities. He had some rough games and he’s had a couple of times where people want him out of there, outside our building, and kind of given up on the fact that he was a wide receiver that went to the other side of the ball.

“He stuck with it. He practiced hard. He practices hard every day and he tries to get better and then every week he’s gotten a little bit better. This last game was a good indication of why we like him. His ball skills are unique for a corner, and when he gets his hands on the ball, he usually brings it down.”

CB Tony Lippett, a fifth-round pick, speaks after Day 1 of Miami Dolphins Rookie Minicamp on Friday, May 8, 2015. Video by Walter Michot / Miami Herald Staff

JENKINS SLOWED

Why didn’t linebacker Jelani Jenkins play at all in the second half against the Jets after playing 22 snaps in the first half?

Jenkins said because of his lingering knee injury, “it was difficult to slow down. I talked to [linebackers coach] Matt Burke and told him it was difficult to decelerate. The decision was made that I would only be used as needed in the second half.”

Does he regret playing?

“In hindsight, I could have made it worse but I’m glad I didn’t. I didn’t re-aggravate it.”

ROSTER MOVE

The Dolphins signed linebacker Trevor Reilly off New England's practice squad and waived linebacker Zach Vigil.

Reilly has played in 29 career games, all with the New York Jets (2014-15). He has career totals of 11 tackles (five solo), one sack, one quarterback hit and one forced fumble. Reilly also has 20 special teams stops (14 solo). He spent the past nine weeks on New England's practice squad.

Reilly played collegiately at Utah and was originally a seventh-round pick (233rd overall) by the Jets in the 2014 NFL draft.

Vigil played in 23 career games with two starts for the Dolphins (2015-16), including seven games this season.

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