Barry Jackson

Here's how Dolphins' legitimate starting battles stack up

Second-year player Cordrea Tankersley is one of the players pushing to start at cornerback opposite Xavien Howard in 2018.
Second-year player Cordrea Tankersley is one of the players pushing to start at cornerback opposite Xavien Howard in 2018.

New Dolphins defensive backs coach Tony Oden was asked Wednesday if there’s any player, beyond Reshad Jones, who he could say with certainty would be a starter for his unit this season.

“Definitely can’t,” he said.

Now let’s be real: Xavien Howard almost assuredly will start at one cornerback spot. But two starting job in the defensive backfield are genuinely open, and at least three other starting spots on this team are, too.

A look at those five starting decisions that could extend into mid-August or beyond:

Linebacker: Expect Stephone Anthony to get a long look for the third starting spot alongside Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan. “Stephone can do it all — drop into coverage, play the run,” Alonso said.

But Jerome Baker, the third-round pick, figures to play some in passing situations and could compete to start in base if he proves adequate against the run in preseason.

Chase Allen can’t be ruled out. Allen played 219 snaps on defense last season; Anthony played 130 after his September acquisition from the Saints.

The Dolphins so far haven’t been linked to former Eagles starter Mychal Kendricks, who is taking visits elsewhere. And Miami will play with two linebackers a lot of the time.

Safety: The Dolphins aren’t going to immediately insert Minkah Fitzpatrick in the lineup ahead of T.J. McDonald. But they weren’t thrilled with how the Jones/McDonald tandem worked in the second half last season — Jones had a 120.9 passer rating in his coverage area for the year, McDonald 112.3 — and it would be shocking if Fizpatrick isn’t starting at some point this season, if not immediately. Regardless, Fitzpatrick will play a lot.

“He’s smart; he’s all the things we thought he would be,” Oden said of Fitzpatrick. “You can tell he’s played in a lot of games [at Alabama]. Very good communicator. Wants extra study. Those things are more mature than most. He’s fallen in line exactly what we thought he would be.”

Cornerback: Bobby McCain is being given a legitimate chance to compete with Cordrea Tankersley and Tony Lippett for the spot opposite Howard.

Quarterbacks had a 119.8 passer rating in Tankersley’s coverage area last season, compared with 77.3 for McCain. The Dolphins liked some of what they saw from Tankersley last season but not everything and aren’t inclined to simply hand him the starting job.

Lippett must show he’s fully recovered from last August’s torn Achilles to join this battle. He missed Wednesday’s practice with an undisclosed injury unrelated to his Achilles.

Has Lippett regained all his skills?

“He has all the skills, but everyone looks good [in OTAs],” Oden said. “Preseason game, that’s when you find it out. He’s doing exactly what he needs to do. I have zero complaints. … He’s an NFL corner. Our training staff has done a phenomenal job, and he’s done a phenomenal job.”

Third receiver spot opposite Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker: Both Albert Wilson and Danny Amendola will play a lot, but who starts at Miami’s third receiver is a tossup.

Each started a combined 12 games the past two years, with Amendola starting eight games for the Patriots last season, Wilson starting seven for Kansas City.

“Amendola is a savvy guy; he’s good off the line with his releases,” McDonald said. “He’s a tough, gritty guy. Albert Wilson can run. He’s got great hands."

Wilson made something out of nothing on a 22-yard catch and run for touchdown Wednesday. He had the third-most broken tackles of any NFL receiver last year.

Tight end: At this point, it’s impossible to rule out any of four possibilities — rookies Mike Gesicki and Durham Smythe or veterans AJ Derby or MarQuies Gray, with Gavin Escobar and Thomas Duarte also on the roster.

The Dolphins would love if Gesicki and Smythe are ready to assume No. 1 and No. 2 duties by September, but it’s way too early to tell. Gesicki made an acrobatic catch during one drill Wednesday, but if he’s going to start immediately, he can’t be a liability in run blocking — and Miami won’t know that until August.

The Dolphins like the upside of Derby, and Gray – who was unhappy with his playing time last season — is a serviceable stopgap if all else fails.

As for other positions, Robert Quinn is expected to supplant Andre Branch as a starting defensive end, and Jordan Phillips and Davon Godchaux are favorites to start at defensive tackle, though Akeem Spence will play a lot.

At kicker, the Jason Sanders/Greg Joseph battle remains tight. Sanders, the rookie seventh-rounder, hit from 49 yards Wednesday but missed from 44 and 54.

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