‘Thrown in the fire,’ Miami Dolphins CB Tony Lippett avoids getting burned

Defensive back Tony Lippett at Dolphins training facility in Davie on May 31, 2017. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

If you want one play that summed up the day that ended the Dolphins’ 2016 season, this is as good as any.

The Steelers had lined up for a 36-yard field goal that would have given them a 26-6 lead when out of nowhere, Tony Lippett came flying into the picture, leaping over the line of scrimmage, trying to block the kick but instead giving Pittsburgh a cheap first down for encroachment.

“I thought it was a good idea the whole time,” Lippett said of a tactic called by the coaches but since banned by the league. “I mean, when I jumped over and nobody moved, I didn’t think it was a good idea.

“You live and you learn, man.”

Isn’t that the story of Lippett’s brief NFL career — not the part about filling blooper reels, but living and learning?

Bobby McCain (28) and fellow Dolphins cornerback Tony Lippett (36) after practice on May 31, 2017. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Lippett arrived in 2015 as an ultimate project, a fifth-rounder pegged as a cornerback even though he primarily was a receiver at Michigan State who occasionally started in the secondary. Teams’ attention span for projects in today’s NFL isn’t what it used to be. So when Xavien Howard went down with a knee injury that cost him nine games last season, Lippett the student was faced with a pop quiz.

“Going what I went through, and just being kind of thrown in the fire, I think, kind of helped me,” he said Wednesday.

Playing opposite cornerback Byron Maxwell, Lippett was an obvious target for quarterbacks but held his own, making 67 tackles, tying for the team lead with four interceptions and recording 10 passes defensed. His first career interception came against the Chargers’ Philip Rivers, a fourth-quarter grab in the end zone.

“Looking back on it, I didn’t really have a choice to respond any other way,” he said. The situation was basically one of “all right, get out there and play,” he said. “That’s what you’ve got to do. It’s your job.”

Lippett neither marvels nor frets on his performances. Or that Howard is healthy. If that weren’t enough to complicate his path toward significant playing time, there’s also the presence of Clemson’s Cordrea Tankersley, the Dolphins’ third-round pick.

At least Wednesday, the mix was working — perhaps too well in the eyes of Adam Gase, the offensive-minded head coach who watched as all the chatter came from defensive backs talking trash while stifling the offense.

Tony Lippett intercepts a pass intended for Tyrell Williams of the San Diego Chargers in November. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

“Oh, yes,” Gase said. “They took it to the offense today. Everything they said, that was pretty much true.”

What was said?

“I wasn’t trying to pay attention too much because then they start talking to me,” Gase said.

Cornerback Bobby McCain “won’t stop talking,” said Lippett, who describes himself as the type to “talk a little bit here and there. I’m not much of a talker at all.”

He likes to think of himself more of a listener. During offseason workouts under Pete Bommarito, who runs an enclave that attracts scores of NFL players, Lippett is constantly leaning on veterans.

“Every day I’d pick somebody’s knowledge — what they’re thinking on this, what they’re thinking on that,” Lippett said. “It helps you at the end of the day. Nobody’s going to be selfish enough to hold information and things like that. If they’re going to give it to me, I’m going to ask them every day. A little tip, something. ‘What’d you see out there? You’ve been playing 12 years, so obviously, you see more than I do. So whatever you see, I can learn from that and I can incorporate that into my game, how I think on the field.’ ”

Lippett said he entered the league with the same attitude. Even running with the scout team, his goal was to “get 3 percent better at something” each day. Midway through his rookie year, he began thinking of himself as a defensive back rather than a converted receiver.

“When the ball’s in the air, I try to go get it, but I’m not a wide receiver anymore,” he said.

With a 6-foot-3 frame, Lippett has the size the Dolphins covet in their secondary. He had a pick-six earlier in OTAs that triggered a range of emotions for Gase: “Happy for Tony for about one second and then I’m mad at him because he figured out what we were doing and jumped the route.”

Said safety Reshad Jones: “Tony Lippett is playing probably the best ball he’s been playing.”

In other words, he’s learning.

Check out staff photographer Allen Eyestone’s photo gallery from Dolphins OTAs

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