The Dolphins’ training camp from hell continued Tuesday when coach Adam Gase revealed that cornerback Tony Lippett tore his Achilles’ tendon in Monday’s practice, an injury that will sideline him for the 2017 season.
The Dolphins now have lost four key players - Ryan Tannehill, Ted Larsen, Raekwon McMillan and Lippett - to serious injuries in camp. Like Lippett, Tannehill and McMillan are out for the season.
Lippett had four interceptions last season, tied for sixth in the AFC, played 75 percent of Miami’s defensive snaps last season and was positioned to be the team’s No. 3 cornerback.
He was injured when he jumped up in Monday’s practice trying to make a play on a ball. “Nobody touched him,” Gase said.
Lippett had missed practice time this past weekend with a foot issue, but there was no indication that this was related.
The likely fallout:
• Alterraun Verner and rookie Cordrea Tankersley are among those competing to be the No. 3 cornerback behind Byron Maxwell and Xavien Howard. Walt Aikens, Tory McTyer, Jordan Lucas, Lafayette Pitts and Larry Hope are also on the roster.
Verner appears to have the edge in that battle. Gase raved about him on Tuesday, while not saying much when asked about Tankersley.
“For him to just jump in and compete the way he has competed has been very impressive,” Gase said of Verner. “We didn’t know how good outside he was [as opposed to the slot]. He has impressed me being able to play corner. Really tight in coverage. Has had his hands on balls. [With him] being able to slide inside, his value is high. Tough to find guys like this.”
• Bobby McCain appears poised to remain the Dolphins’ first-team nickel corner, the likely scenario whether Lippet had been injured or not.
Verner said he has received only a few first-team snaps at slot corner during training camp, so a McCain/Verner battle hadn’t particularly materialized. Safety Michael Thomas also has received some work at slot corner.
When defensive coordinator Matt Burke was asked recently about whether Verner was challenging McCain at slot corner, Burke said: "He’s had a good camp. I wouldn’t say that. I think Bobby’s had a great camp and Bobby’s right where we want him to be."
McCain allowed a 113 passer rating in his coverage area last season and has just one interception in 36 career games, but the Dolphins believe he has improved.
“Bobby has had a really good camp,” Gase said. “You can tell he’s so much more comfortable than last year. He has a great feel for the details of the job. Been very tough to complete [balls] in the slot. Been tight in coverage.”
When asked about Tankersley, the rookie third-round pick from Clemson, Gase said only: “We have a lot of guys competing right now. I like how our young guys play.”
The Dolphins had hoped to use this season possibly as a redshirt type year for Tankersley, and that still might happen.
Verner has intercepted two passes during training camp practices and has often been around the ball.
"There’s comfort level for me with ‘Vern’ as a veteran guy that’s done it before, and he’s made some plays,” Burke said earlier in camp. “He hasn’t played in a press system that kind of we employ, so there’s some technique stuff that he’s working with; but we’re very happy with sort of what he’s done since he’s been here.”
The Dolphins, in recent years, have taken a bunch of low-risk financial gambles on players who were once very good, at least for a year, but declined because of injury, circumstance or diminished skill.
From Jordan Cameron to Chris Culliver to Arian Foster, several of those gambles failed to pay dividends. Verner is the latest such project; none of his $900,000 salary is guaranteed if he doesn’t make the team.
Verner, 28, made the Pro Bowl as a Tennessee Titan following the 2013 season when he had five interceptions and 22 pass break-ups, which tied for the NFL lead. He parlayed that into a four-year, $26.4 million contract with Tampa Bay.
But Pro Football Focus says Verner’s three seasons in Tampa were the lowest-rated of his career. Verner started 14 games for the Buccaneers in 2014 but started just nine games the last two years. He played only 241 snaps and started three games in 2016, and Tampa Bay released him Feb. 23 to save $6.5 million in cap space.
Verner, who has 15 career interceptions, insists he’s the same player who was a Pro Bowler four years ago.
"No question," he said. "I’m only 28. If anything, I’m entering my prime. I got better and I definitely didn’t get worse. Regardless of what people might think on the outside, that’s something I’ve been dealing with all my life. That’s why I was a fourth rounder."
Verner said it was "weird" being unemployed for seven months: "I was just telling [safety] Nate Allen that this [camp] is the first time I’ve put on a helmet since Jan. 1st and it [makes you] realize that it’s a privilege to be on this stage and not a right."
There has been a wide disparity in Verner’s productivity through his career.
During his first four seasons, he allowed a passer in his coverage area of between 55.8 and 80.8 – which is very good.
But in 2014, that swelled to a 111.1 passer rating against and 68.6 percent completion percentage against, and to 100.0 and 70.5 percent in 2015.
He rebounded somewhat last season, allowing a 67.9 passer rating, but the 15 passes caught against him averaged a bloated 15.5 yards. So why wasn’t he as effective for Tampa as he was for Tennessee? Verner isn’t sure.
Verner said he has played primarily boundary corner in five of his seven pro seasons, so he’s comfortable there.
"I think as a nickel, you have to know a lot more," Verner said.