Secondary Thoughts: What Should We Expect from Tony Lippett and Bobby McCain in 2016?
While a lot of attention will understandably be directed this season toward the newbies of the Dolphins’ defensive backfield, Byron Maxwell, Xavien Howard, and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, we can’t forget about the “veterans” that still occupy the secondary. Maxwell is obviously their top corner heading into 2016, but behind him the competition for playing time is completely up for grabs. That’s where Tony Lippett and Bobby McCain should come in. The two players have shown flashes, but have been too inconsistent to be considered long term solutions at the position. However, it would be naïve to believe that Howard will step in and be an immediate upgrade over two players that have gained valuable NFL experience. Despite Lippett being the obvious option to challenge Howard for the second cornerback spot, both him and McCain will need to step up their respective games if Miami is going to progress against the pass. Let’s take a look at what they each have to offer as well as the aspects of their performances that they will need to improve upon in order to take advantage of the opportunities they have been presented with.
Why are they important members of the defense?
If things break a certain way, Lippett could be starting across from Maxwell with McCain occupying the nickel corner spot. In a defense headed by former defensive backs coach Vance Joseph, obviously they are going to play a crucial role. Miami’s new and improved front seven should help, but will they be able to take advantage?
Lippett’s story should be well known by now by Dolphins fans. A former star for the Michigan State Spartans, he contributed on offense, defense and special teams. Unsurprisingly, many of the traits that made him a productive wide receiver in college similarly make him an exciting option for Joseph’s use in Miami; specifically, a desirable combo of size, athleticism, and ball skills. While Lippett often came up empty in his attempts to display these attributes in his rookie season, Joseph should work wonders in getting him into the right positions to make plays. In 2015, Lippett made some headlines by intercepting not one, not two, but three passes in a single day at OTAs. Sure, he has yet to prove himself in an actual game setting, but nearly all of the signs point to him being fully capable of becoming a defensive playmaker.
The problem in analyzing Lippett’s game is that there just isn’t that much tape to watch. He is inexperienced; that much can’t be denied. He only had one pass defended in his rookie season, but for what its worth it was a dandy:
He shows very good recovery speed and almost perfect timing on his dive. The only thing that could’ve made the play better would’ve been coming down with the interception, but I think we can give him a pass there. Additionally, Lippett is a physical player and shows a willingness to tackle that should suit him perfectly in Joseph’s zone coverage scheme. I like the clip below for two reasons: not only for his ability to turn and run with speedster Donte Moncrief, but also for his containment of Phillip Dorsett at the end of the play:
The point is that there is obviously talent here. He just lacks playing experience and therefore can’t be considered a “sure thing” at this point of his career.
Although Lippett may end up being higher on the depth chart, McCain has a clearer path to playing time. At 5’9” and 196 pounds, he is almost perfectly suited to be a slot corner. He’s not the fastest, but he is a quick twitch athlete with enough instincts to thrive as a nickel corner under the right coaching. Could Joseph unlock some of McCain’s potential in only his first year coaching him? It certainly is possible. McCain has the type of feisty mentality and physicality that is pivotal for an NFL corner. Add his soft hands into the equation and the former Memphis Tiger has the potential to be yet another weapon for this Miami defense, as long as he can master his technique.
McCain accumulated significantly more counting stats than Lippett in their inaugural season. While neither tallied an interception as a rookie, McCain more than doubled Lippett’s amount of tackles and passes defended with 28 and 4, respectively. A lot of this had to do with sheer opportunity: Miami simply had no one else to challenge him for the nickel corner spot. Yet, McCain showed glimpses of promise too.
First of all, he offers very beneficial scheme versatility: he has the hip fluidity to succeed in man coverage, in addition to the instincts that allow him to hold his own in zone coverage. Take these next two plays for example:
Here, McCain drops back into his zone and you can clearly see him attempting to diagnose the play. His feet are consistently in motion, but his eyes remain stationary on the eyes of the quarterback. This allows him to read the pass, break on the tight end, and force an incompletion.
Whereas in this matchup, McCain displays a balanced backpedal and impressive change of direction skills. He also opens his stance at a near perfect instant; if Chris Givens had continued his route up field, Bobby McCain would’ve likely been in position to remain on his hip. These skills suit him well when matched up one on one with a wide receiver, specifically in off-man coverage.
Overall, both players are obviously quite talented. Unfortunately, talent doesn’t always translate into results on the field. If Miami’s defense is going to take a step forward under Joseph’s tutelage, Lippett and McCain will have to outperform expectations. Luckily, they shouldn’t be too high following their underwhelming performance in 2015.
What is holding them back?
The positive commentary given to Lippett and McCain above should not be taken as endorsements to be anything more than they’re being asked to be: reliable stopgaps at their position. It should instead be considered a reason for optimism in the upcoming season. Howard and Lippett are in very, very similar situations as young, raw, yet athletic corners. However, Lippett has one year of experience playing at the professional level. It is this difference between him and the former Baylor star that could give him the upper hand in the competition and makes him extremely important to Miami’s defense.
Nevertheless, Lippett’s inexperience will continue to hold him back for the time being. The trajectory of his performance last season suggests as much: in the last three games of the season, Lippett recorded 10 out of his 13 total tackles and his only pass breakup of the season. His play improved significantly as the season progressed and his career could take on a similar path.
With that being said, the fact remains that his production throughout the nine games he participated in still left a lot to be desired. Of course, he started off contributing solely on special teams, which certainly played a part. Nonetheless, he still has a lot of growing to do as he completes his transition from wide receiver to defensive back. The intricacies of these two positions are extremely different. While knowing what goes through the mind of a receiver theoretically should help him in his endeavors, he still must learn how to properly use his hands and better time his looks into the backfield. Looking at the quarterback too early in coverage can get a corner into a ton of trouble, and Lippett has previously identified it as one of his most significant challenges up to this point.
McCain has similarly faced obstacles since joining the NFL. Last year, he gained his first starting experience as an outside corner. He has the confidence necessary to succeed all over the field, but his relative lack of size and strength limit his upside when lined up on the boundary. While these weaknesses won’t be as detrimental in the slot, they will still affect his play against tougher matchups. Eric Decker, in particular, could be one player that gives him fits, as he is a matchup nightmare out of the slot. Watch the play below to see his difficulties in covering bigger receivers:
Although the touchdown was eventually called back due to an offensive pass interference penalty, the call easily could have gone against McCain. Once the contact is made, McCain immediately becomes off balance. The fact that he is so easily forced off of his path is worrisome, especially as a young defensive back that is less likely to be given a call against a veteran receiver. Additionally, it takes McCain far too long to turn his head and locate the ball. Not only will this force him into making unnecessary penalties, but it also leaves him vulnerable to surrendering big plays.
Fortunately, Joseph figures to be just the guy to rid both McCain and Lippett of all of these mistakes. As is well-known by now, the former Bengals’ defensive backs’ coach worked wonders with young cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueeze Dennard, as well as veterans Adam Jones and Leon Hall. He now turns his attention to Miami’ secondary: a position group with (based on the points made above) a simultaneously high ceiling and low floor. How he fares in this regard in his premier season will play a direct role in determining the success of the entire team, and inspiring confidence heading into 2017.