(Note: This continues a series in Daily Dolphin spotlighting members of the team individually. In addition to reliving highlights and lowlights of the past season for each, we’ll provide analysis and criticism, plus take a look at how each player fits — or doesn’t fit — into the team’s plans for 2018.)
CB Cordrea Tankersley
Height, weight: 6-1, 200
Experience: Second NFL season, both with Dolphins
Acquired: Third-round pick in 2017
Contract: In second year of four-year, $3.2 million rookie contract
Pro Football Focus rank: 93rd out of 121
Stats: Started 11 games; had 31 tackles and seven passes defensed
Notable moments: Broke up a Matt Ryan pass that Reshad Jones intercepted with 47 seconds left to clinch a comeback win in Atlanta. … Had six tackles and two passes defensed vs. Bucs.
Straight talk: Tankersley says he’s not looking over his shoulder. The Dolphins don’t want him to.
Tankersley said he considered it a “no-brainer” that “it’s my job to lose” — before coach Adam Gase said he wanted Tankersley to look at it that way.
It’s entirely possible that it will become more of a competition if and when Tony Lippett, the 2016 starter, rebounds after tearing his Achilles during the 2017 preseason. More on Lippett in a moment.
First, Tankersley. He never had time to catch his breath when making the leap from a big-time college program to the NFL, which is a luxury you’d prefer with cornerbacks.
Gase gave a lukewarm review of what he saw last season: “It’s hard to say. I think he got better. I think there were times where he wishes he could go back and do some things different. But that’s the rookie year.”
Now, it’s Year 2.
“My next step is to become one of the best corners in the league,” Tankersley said.
Prospects for 2018
Xavien Howard has the other cornerback spot nailed down. The wild card is Lippett, the converted receiver who started 13 games in 2016 and had four interceptions.
Lippett clearly had a way to go health-wise in the spring. Gase said the approach was to get Lippett “feeling as 100 percent as he possibly can for training camp.”
Lippett wasn’t necessarily pointing toward getting his starting job back. It was too early for that.
“Right now I’m just taking it one day at a time,” Lippett said. “Just getting better. Knocking off the rust.”
Lippett has gotten advice from ex-Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes, who overcame the same injury and made the Pro Bowl.
The Dolphins took him No. 38 overall three years ago with the thought that he’d be a star cornerback, and there are no more qualifiers as he works toward the upcoming season. There won’t be explanations that he’s still learning or doesn’t have enough game experience. He’s been around, he’s been very good at points and now he needs to put it all together.
“I believe I can be a top corner in the league just going out there and really just playing,” he said after today’s Organized Team Activity session. “So, I’d just say just going out there and doing me.”
Howard has good reason to be confident after a sophomore season that was full of promise. He stayed healthy, which was big after playing just seven games as a rookie, and had four interceptions, 13 pass breakups and 42 tackles.
The way he finished the year prompted optimism throughout the organization, and his most memorable performance came during Miami’s biggest win over the season. In the Monday Night Football upset of the Patriots, Howard played through a case of the flu and intercepted Tom Brady twice.
A big part of that progress was getting better at press coverage and jamming receivers at the line, something defensive coordinator Matt Burke has been imploring his corners to do more often.
As Howard starts to look like more of a veteran cornerback, his emergence would be a huge breakthrough for the rebuilt Dolphins defense.
“He’s getting after it,” safety Reshad Jones said. “He’s out there trying to make plays for us. He’s getting more knowledge of the game and seeing things different. He is recognizing formations and different things like that.”
Howard said he’s much quicker at reading offensive schemes than he was as a rookie and has a better understanding of how to study quarterbacks.
“Stuff that I was doing in college I can’t do in the league,” he said. “You see different receivers and stuff like that. Really, I’m just learning the game and knowing what I can do, knowing what I’m best at and just sticking to that instead of trying to do everything else.
“In college, I wasn’t really watching film and stuff like that. I was just going on my athletic ability; but in the league, it’s a different level.”
The cornerback crew of Howard, Cordrea Tankersley, Bobby McCain and Tony Lippett could develop into an above-average unit, and there’s a lot to like about safeties Jones, T.J. McDonald and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Tightening up the secondary would solve a lot of Miami’s defensive issues.
That starts with Howard, who has to be capable of handling the opposition’s best receiver. If the Dolphins can’t trust him with that responsibility, the whole plan looks shaky.
They also need some evidence from Howard that he’s worth investing in beyond the next two seasons. His rookie contract ends after 2019, which puts him in position to earn an extension after this year.
“It’s a big season for me and the team,” Howard said.
The Dolphins went defense-heavy in last year’s NFL Draft coming off a season in which they struggled to stop anybody. Next month’s draft figures to be the opposite scenario.
Nonetheless, the 2017 draft class showed good cohesion between coach Adam Gase and general manager Chris Grier. Grier’s primary responsibility in Miami’s power structure is to oversee the draft, and he was the director of college scouting for the team from 2007 through ’15 before becoming general manager.
The Dolphins found instant contributors in first-round pick Charles Harris at defensive end and fifth-round defensive tackle Davon Godchaux. Cornerback Cordrea Tankersley took over a starting job about a month into the season, and sixth-round defensive tackle Vincent Taylor got steady playing time off the bench.
Miami also picked up linebacker Chase Allen, who started the season opener and played all 16 games, and punter Matt Haack.
“I thought they did a good job,” Gase said of his 2017 rookies. “It felt like we had a lot of guys play. I thought our college free agents—We had so many guys either make it at the beginning or ended up being on the roster toward the end of the year. And our draft picks, the ones that ended up staying healthy… did a really good job. They were a good example of how we want to do it going forward.”
The Dolphins believe they landed a starter in linebacker Raekwon McMillan as well. They took him in the second round and had him on track to start before he tore his ACL in the first preseason game.
Seventh-round wide receiver Isaiah Ford missed the whole year due to injury, though he is expected back this season. Offensive guard Isaac Asiata was deemed far from ready to play at the NFL level and did not appear until the season finale, but he’s determined to be part of the offensive line rotation this year.
In the upcoming draft, most of the holes Miami needs fill are on offense. The team needs a quarterback to play behind Ryan Tannehill, a tight end, at least one offensive lineman, a slot receiver and possibly another running back. Those needs would change, of course, if the Dolphins are able to address some of them in free agency.
MIAMI GARDENS—No other position on the Dolphins’ roster has been a more volatile stock than the cornerbacks. From moment to moment, they go from looking like one of the deeper units on the team to one of its chief liabilities.
The group is surging, at least it appears that way, after some developments late last season gave Miami cause for optimism.
Second-year man Xavien Howard looks ready to be a No. 1 corner who can shadow the opponent’s top threat, Cordrea Tankersley held his own as a rookie and slot corner Bobby McCain is as reliable as ever. Add in the return of 2016 starter Tony Lippett, and the Dolphins look like they have what they need.
“We have a great room and we have a lot of talented guys, a lot of guys that can play good football,” McCain said at the organization’s annual Dolphins Cancer Challenge last weekend. “It’s exciting to have talent, and you can never go wrong with too many corners.”
That’s something coach Adam Gase says often, which means the idea of pursuing cornerbacks in free agency or taking one in the upcoming draft can’t be ruled out.
And even if the Dolphins do feel confident in their personnel, they have concerns. Gase and defensive coordinator Matt Burke fired defensive backs coach Lou Anarumo, who had been with the team since 2012, and replaced him with Tony Oden. Longtime NFL safety Renaldo Hill also joined the staff as Oden’s assistant.
Miami’s pass defense was mediocre or worse for most of last season, but diagnosing the problems goes deeper than analyzing the cornerbacks. A better pass rush would’ve lessened the burden on them in coverage, and they could’ve used more help behind them from the safeties.
Taking all of that into account, the Dolphins were middle of the pack in total pass defense, but that number likely would’ve been somewhat worse if not for the fact that they spent so much time trailing. Miami allowed 7.2 yards per attempt, which was tied for ninth-worst in the league.
The Dolphins also allowed a 94.8 passer rating, fifth-highest in the NFL, and managed to get their hands on a mere nine interceptions. That’s one pick every 58.7 attempts, and it was a major factor in the team’s minus-14 turnover differential. Only Denver and Cleveland were worse.
“Just being consistent and winning ballgames,” McCain said when asked what the next step for his unit is. “Doing whatever it takes—no matter if it’s turnovers or regardless of what it is. As a secondary, we’re going to have a big part in that.”
In a game in which the Dolphins held on to win by a touchdown, both of his picks were in Miami territory, taking scoring chances away from the Patriots, and they led to a touchdown and a field goal. At minimum, that was a 16-point swing in his team’s favor on a night when it was badly needed.
Howard, a second-round pick in 2016, led the Dolphins with four interceptions (coming over back-to-back games) for the year. McCain and safety Reshad Jones each had two, and McDonald added one. That was it. In 10 of 16 games, Miami did not intercept a pass.
Howard finished the year with 13 pass breakups, 48 tackles and a sack. He had a near-perfect night against Brandin Cooks to beat the Patriots, and the week before ran home with a pick-six against Denver.
“That’s my boy,” Lippett said. He stepped up a lot. He grew up this year. He made plays that we know he can make and we’ve seen him make plenty of times (in practice). I was happy for him.”
Pro Football Focus rated him the 92nd-best corner in the league for the season, but that was weighted by his inconsistency early. His overall trajectory is trending upwardly, and he’s still just 24 years old with 22 career starts.
He’ll be locked into one starting cornerback spot, and the other likely will be a battle between Lippett and Tankersley. Ideally for Miami, it’ll be a tough decision between the two, plus a few quality options behind them.
“I think we’re a good, young group,” Lippett said. “We’re gonna compete and make each other better and help each other out. We’re committed to winning. That’s the main thing.”
Just because it was a downer of a season — with the Dolphins managing just six wins — doesn’t mean it didn’t have its moments.
Today, we bring you the first of a two-part installment of the 10 best plays of the season by the Dolphins. And as you’ll soon see, if you had a ticket to see one home game, you got your money’s worth.
Stills performs a juggling act
Situation: First quarter, first-and-10 on Jets’ 40.
The play: Jay Cutler throws an incompletion deep to Kenny Stills … hey, wait a second … did the ball ever hit the ground? Answer: No, it did not. This play required the red challenge flag from Adam Gase and probably fooled everybody (definitely the game officials) watching it in real time. It even took a couple of different replay angles to determine that even though Stills juggled the ball a couple of times while lying on the ground, he did catch it and he also managed to prevent his left heel from coming down out of bounds. On the next play, Cutler hit Jarvis Landry for a 4-yard TD and early 7-7 tie.
Quote: “I should have caught the thing the first time,” Stills said. “It was in my hands. The lucky part about it is that it didn’t touch the ground.” Stills said it was the craziest catch he’d ever made. “I saw somebody had tagged me on it (as the catch of the year). It’ll last for a week and then somebody else will make a crazy play.”
Spectacular double play
Part I: Howard’s second interception of Brady
Situation: Early third quarter, third-and-16 on Patriots’ 14.
The play: The Dolphins led 13-10 at halftime and coming out of the break, Jordan Phillips nailed Tom Brady for an 8-yard sack. Perhaps frustrated, Brady then drops back to pass and has ample time, eventually looking to find Brandin Cooks deep left. And, for a couple of seconds, it appears Cooks, who has two steps on Howard, will make the catch at the Dolphins’ 35 and possibly score. But while the ball is in the air, Howard makes up the ground, reaching up in front of Cooks at the last possible moment to make the interception.
Quote: “That is one of the great interceptions you will see,” analyst Jon Gruden said during ESPN’s Monday night telecast. “Cooks had two steps and Xavien Howard blurs the screen with a spectacular interception.”
Part II: Grant’s first TD a tall order
Situation: Third quarter, second-and-6 on Patriots’ 25.
The play: Five plays after Howard’s interception, the Dolphins make the Patriots pay for a 20-10 lead. With one of the best passes he threw as a Dolphin, Jay Cutler lofts on into the end zone, where Jakeem Grant is racing with (and covered by) Malcolm Butler. Despite giving up at least 4 inches to Butler, Grant leaps to high-point the ball and scores his first career touchdown.
Quote: “He played it within five yards so I used my speed,” Grant said. “I thought it was going to be an over the shoulder ball but Jay threw it up there and trusted me to come down with it so I had to make a play. Like I told Adam previously, I promised my kids I would score a touchdown for them so I had to. I was hungry enough to get that touchdown and come down with it. Also I wanted to make that play for the team to show them that you can trust me.”
Drake puts Patriots through the spin cycle
Situation: Third quarter, first-and-10 on Patriots’ 35.
The play: What the heck got into the Dolphins, anyway? Just 5 1/2 minutes after Grant’s spectacular touchdown, which followed Howard’s spectacular interception, Kenyan Drake decided it was time for him to make the highlight reel. He took a handoff from Jay Cutler, intending to run up the middle, except nobody blocked safety Patrick Chung, who shot through the gap just outside left tackle Laremy Tunsil. Chung was about to come nose to nose with Drake. Surely, a tackle for loss was about to happen. But Drake did a 360-degree spin, screwing Chung into the ground, before running around right end for a 31-yard gain, denied a touchdown by Devin McCourty. Two plays later, Cutler cashed in, hitting Jarvis Landry with a 4-yard scoring pass.
Quote: “Even when we don’t quite block it right, he makes it work,” coach Adam Gase said. “He has good vision. With speed like that, he just gets a little bit of green grass and seems to go a pretty good distance.”
Jones’ interception vs. Falcons (Tankersley with the assist)
Situation: First-and-10 on Miami 26, 47 seconds left. Dolphins had just taken a 20-17 lead on Cody Parkey’s 38-yard field goal, but following the kickoff, the Falcons drove from their 13 to the Miami 26 in eight plays.
The play: Matt Ryan looked for Austin Hooper deep over the middle, but Cordrea Tankersley was all over Hooper and carefully reached around him — avoiding pass interference — to deflect the pass. Reshad Jones had no time to react but instinctively snagged the ricochet to seal the improbable comeback from a 17-0 halftime deficit.
Quote: “That’s something we saw on film all week,” Tankersley said. “Reshad kind of told me, ‘Hey, you’re by yourself on that play,’ so I was just playing one on one, squeezed it, got my hand on it and Reshad just made a great play.”
Among Grier’s seven draft picks last year, none proved to be a better value than fifth-round defensive tackle Davon Godchaux. The Dolphins saw a premium talent despite some red flags and, after thorough investigation, found a starting-caliber player with the 178th overall choice. Not only did he play well, he adapted well to the team’s expectations of professionalism
“He’s been exactly what you want a guy to be,” coach Adam Gase said.
Godchaux wasn’t the only good pick in the Dolphins’ 2017 draft class, which produced starting cornerback Cordrea Tankersley in the third round and a promising defensive end in Charles Harris with the No. 22 overall selection. Vincent Taylor, a defensive tackle they took in the sixth round, also was a contributor.
Among the three rookies who didn’t do much on the field this year, linebacker Raekwon McMillan (second round) and wide receiver Isaiah Ford (seventh) were on Injured Reserve the entire season. Fifth-round pick Isaac Asiata, a guard, took what the staff described as “a red-shirt year” because he needed significant work to get ready to play.
On top of those selections, the Dolphins found six undrafted free agents who can hack it in the NFL. Linebacker Chase Allen, from Southern Illinois, was the best of them and appeared in all 16 games with four of those being starts.
Cornerback Torry McTyer, safety Maurice Smith and punter Matt Haack also showed long-term potential. Haack was eighth in the NFL in punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line this year.
Any look at Grier’s draft from last year—in the Dolphins’ power structure, he spearheads that operation—must begin with Harris. While defensive end might not have been the greatest need at the time, he was the top player on their board and looks like he’s going to be very good.
Very good? With only two sacks and limited playing time stuck behind Cameron Wake and Andre Branch?
Yes, very good. Harris’ advanced numbers give a fuller picture of how well he played as a rookie. He was among the Dolphins’ best defensive linemen when it came to causing opponents to commit holding penalties, hurrying the quarterback and knocking down passes at the line of scrimmage. He did that despite playing just 47.5 percent of the snaps, including four games of 38 percent or fewer.
“His disruption numbers have been trending positively for us, so I think that those are blocks to build on and to move forward with,” defensive coordinator Matt Burke said.
McMillan and Tankersley are already marked down as 2018 starters, and Harris will get a chance to compete against Branch.
McMillan would’ve almost certainly been Miami’s starting middle linebacker in the opener had he not torn his ACL in the first game of the preseason. Tankersley took a much different track, coming on slowly in the preseason before coming on to take Byron Maxwell’s job in Week 4.
Tankersley had been inactive the first two games, but issues with Maxwell’s performance prompted the Dolphins to thrust him into the starting lineup against Drew Brees for his pro debut. He held his own and became a full-time starter.
If Tankersley can grow into an unquestionable starter, that gives Miami optimism about its secondary going forward with him, Xavien Howard and Bobby McCain all 24 years old.
If the Dolphins intended to pit Godchaux and Taylor against each other to battle it out for a job, Godchaux has the clear lead after Year 1. He had 40 tackles and a forced fumble, working his way onto the field for 47.8 percent of the defensive snaps.
But Taylor looks like a quality piece as well.
“We gained a lot this season from seeing Vincent do all of the things we asked him to do,” Gase said. “He was one of our high-energy guys. He practiced hard every day and he gave us value on special teams, which is great to get from a defensive linemen. I do think he’s a guy that we’re looking forward to keep developing and seeing how far we can help him grow as a football player.”
Even at this stage, with Godchaux and Taylor still trying to prove themselves, it looks like Grier has once again made good use of the late rounds. His best find was Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones in the fifth round in 2010, and in the last few years he found talent in Jakeem Grant (sixth round) and Jay Ajayi (fifth).
And if three or four players from this class are already full-time starters by the beginning of their second season, that’s another strong year for Grier.
DAVIE–All the momentum the Dolphins have built over the past two weeks is tenuous as they head into what promises to be a frigid game at Buffalo on Sunday, and health will be a big factor in their ability to maintain it.
As Miami strives to stay in the playoff chase and even its record at 7-7, here are some personnel updates from this afternoon’s practice:
–One of the biggest concerns is rookie cornerback Cordrea Tankersley (ankle, shoulder), who missed the last game. He was on the field for the beginning of practice, but the Dolphins listed him as doubtful.
–Cornerback Xavien Howard (illness) was back, but he’s still sick. Howard said he will play against Buffalo.
–Defensive end Andre Branch (knee) looks like he’ll be available.
–Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips (ankle) didn’t fully practice Thursday and wasn’t dressed for today’s practice.
–Quarterback Matt Moore (foot) continued to practice, though the Dolphins are likely to stay with David Fales as the backup quarterback to Jay Cutler.
–Running back Damien Williams (shoulder) was on the field, but didn’t appear to be practicing.
–Safety Michael Thomas (knee) also wasn’t practicing, but there’s still a chance he’ll play. It looks like the plan for him is to be cautious during the week but play in games.
–Defensive end Cameron Wake and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh were not practicing during the portion open to the media, but neither is believed to have an injury. The staff has been giving them occasional days off lately.
MIAMI GARDENS–The Dolphins will be missing a few key players as they try to upend the heavily favored Patriots on Monday Night Football.
Miami is going without starting running back Damien Williams for the second straight game after he suffered a shoulder injury in the last Patriots matchup, and right guard Jermon Bushrod remains out with a foot issue.
The biggest question marks going into tonight were defensive tackle Davon Godchaux (missed last week’s game against Denver with a knee injury), cornerback Cordrea Tankersley (hurt his ankle and shoulder last week) and safety Michael Thomas (ongoing knee problem). Godchaux and Thomas will play, but Tankersley is out.
Here are the Dolphins’ inactives:
QB Matt Moore (foot)
RB Damien Williams (shoulder)
RG Jermon Bushrod (foot)
OG Isaac Asiata
TE A.J. Derby
CB Cordrea Tankersley (ankle, shoulder)
DE Cameron Malveaux
–Kenyan Drake gets the start at running back, where the Dolphins are uncomfortably thin. The only backups are Senorise Perry (five career carries) and De’Veon Smith (NFL debut last week).
–Slot cornerback Bobby McCain will move outside in place of Tankersley, according to the Dolphins.
–Third-stringer David Fales will be the backup quarterback for the fourth time this year.
–The starting offensive line is LT Laremy Tunsil, LG Ted Larsen, C Mike Pouncey, RG Jesse Davis and RT Sam Young. This is their third straight game together. They allowed seven sacks against the Patriots two weeks ago, but just two in the Denver game.
DAVIE—The Dolphins believe they are set for years to come with cornerbacks Xavien Howard and Cordrea Tankersley. They were relatively high draft picks, both are 24 and they’ve shown high potential in their early opportunities.
It’s important to remember that both are hugely inexperienced. Howard is in Year 2, but Sunday’s game against Denver will be only his 18th NFL start. Tankersley is starting his 10th game.
Miami coach Adam Gase stopped by the cornerback drills during Thursday’s practice and looked pleased with the group. While the team is middle of the pack in passing yards allowed and is yielding the second-highest opponent passer rating in the league, Gase likes what he’s seen from Howard and Tankersley so far.
“They’re pretty good,” he said. “I mean there will be occasional things where things get messed up, but it hasn’t been a whole bunch. X has been outstanding. He’s really done a good job. He understands what we’re doing and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes.”
Neither does Bobby McCain, who typically takes the slot receiver. McCain is known in the building as an absolute technician, and there’s rarely any concern about him. He might be the most dependable defensive back on the roster when it comes to carrying out assignments.
Pro Football Focus ranks McCain as the Dolphins’ best cornerback, placing him 47th in the league. Tankersley is 73rd, and Howard checks in at No. 117.
With Tankersley and Howard, Gase’s main emphasis lately has been teaching them to resist becoming tentative after they get beat.
“I want to see those two guys just play aggressive and you just have to move on from the next play,” he said. “If you get beat one time, it happens. I mean if you haven’t been beat in the NFL, you’re probably not playing. I want our guys playing confident. I want them playing aggressive.
“I want them to challenge wide receivers. I don’t want them to play passive and off and just try to keep everything in front of them. I want them to put pressure on the wide receivers and make it a tight throw and if they make a good play, good for them; but the majority of the time when you watch the NFL, there’s a lot of missed throws down the field.”