Draft Journal: Cordrea Tankersley Could Be Playmaker Dolphins Sorely Lack at Cornerback

As the 2017 NFL Draft quickly approaches, it remains anyone’s guess what Miami’s coaching staff may consider the team’s biggest need. Public sentiment seems to suggest that the Dolphins have no choice but to invest high draft picks on the defensive side of the ball. However, with a gaping hole at tight end and a severe lack of depth along the defensive line, spending a first round pick on a defender is far from a given. Nonetheless, despite a strong performance from the linebackers and defensive backs against an underachieving Cardinals squad, the loss against the Ravens two weeks ago spoke volumes about Miami’s lack of talent at those two position groups. Thus, it only makes sense that they would consider selecting one of the best defensive playmakers in all of college football…

Cordea Tankersley, Clemson (CB)

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(Streeter Lecka – Getty Images)

At 6’1” and 200 pounds, Clemson standout Cordrea Tankersley fits the mold of the big, disruptive cornerbacks that Vance Joseph has targeted in his first tenure as defensive coordinator. The Dolphins’ defense under Joseph is simultaneously press-heavy and zone-heavy. Unfortunately, Miami’s soft zone coverage has been picked apart by above average quarterbacks throughout 2016. While the defensive backfield found success against the deteriorating skillset of Carson Palmer, Joe Flacco easily and consistently identified open receivers the week before. Unfortunately, Miami will have little choice but to continue to rely on a zone scheme until they alter the personnel at cornerback.

Tankersley would likely fail to solve Miami’s zone woes, but he would allow them to eventually rely more heavily on a physically extensive press-man scheme. Truthfully, the Dolphins don’t have a single corner on their current roster that can excel in man coverage. Byron Maxwell has used his return to a zone game plan to become the playmaker he was in Seattle, but his struggles in Philadelphia depicted his man-coverage deficiencies. Tony Lippett has the athleticism to shadow receivers, but his inexperience plagues him against the league’s more savvy receivers. Xavien Howard, meanwhile, has always seemed like a better fit for a zone-heavy defense, and his development has been stunted due to the countless injuries he has suffered in his rookie season.

Part of the reason Miami’s defensive success depends so heavily on the effectiveness of their pass rush is their reliance on zone-coverage. If Cameron Wake and company fail to provide enough pressure in the backfield, starting caliber NFL quarterbacks should be able to easily identify the holes in the defense. There are ultimately two potential solutions to the problem: improve the pass rusher or improve the secondary. Adding Tankersley would obviously work towards achieving the latter.

Tankersley is long and disruptive, and has extremely impressive ball skills. The Clemson senior was somewhat overshadowed by former teammate Mackensie Alexander in 2015. However, Alexander’s presence in the defensive backfield allowed Tankersley to prove that he could hold his own as well. He was targeted often throughout his junior year as teams attempted to avoid Alexander’s side of the field, and Tankersley made opposing offenses pay to the tune of five interceptions and a pick six. 

With Alexander being drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the second round of last year’s draft, Tankersley inherited the number one corner spot on the depth chart and hasn’t disappointed. Alexander was projected to be a late first round pick, but fell down draft boards due to his lack of size and questionable ball skills. Tankersley will have no such problems, and his combination of length, athleticism and playmaking abilities should place him firmly in the first-round discussion.

Tankersley helped his own cause by playing the best game of his career in the ACC Championship Game against Virginia Tech. Tankersley matched up against top tight end prospect Bucky Hodges throughout the night, and there is no question he won the showdown. The Tiger standout notched two interceptions and an additional pass defended in the win that ultimately clinched Clemson’s spot in the College Football Playoff. In the first takeaway, Tankersley displayed fantastic awareness and concentration to pick off the throw at its highest point and get not one, but two feet down to secure the interception…

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It was his second pick, however, that most clearly depicted his undeniable athletic potential. On 4th and 6, and the game on the line, Tankersley accelerated towards the line of scrimmage, dove in front of the intended receiver and corralled the ball to seal the victory for the Tigers. While an incomplete pass would have had the same end result, NFL scouts will be pleased to see that Tankersley held on for the interception:

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There are some questions surrounding the star corner’s technique, but scouts had similar concerns about Howard prior to Miami selecting him in the second round last year. The Dolphins’ coaching staff seems to have faith in their ability to develop young corners, especially with Joseph in the fold. It is unclear exactly what position Miami sees as their biggest need, but they could ultimately be intrigued by Tankersley’s upside. Plus, it is common knowledge that a team can never have too many talented corners.

Others to Keep an Eye On

Pat Elfein, Ohio State (G/C)

Ohio State offensive lineman Pat Elflein is one of several linemen prospects that are jockeying for position in the back end of round one. The 6’3” and 300 pound senior started for the Buckeyes at both left and right guard in his sophomore and junior years prior to moving to center for his final season. His versatility is perhaps his most desirable quality for the Dolphins, as their lack of depth across the line of scrimmage has crippled the offense at times.

Elflein has suffered through some inconsistency during his time at center, which makes it more likely that Adam Gase would choose to employ him at right guard. However, with Mike Pouncey suffering through several injuries since being drafted, having Elflein to back him up would be extremely valuable.

After an unbelievable collective stretch of play by the Miami offensive line during the six-game win streak, several key injuries have plagued the position group. Ryan Tannehill has been consistently pressured and Jay Ajayi has struggled as well, averaging less than 3 yards per carry in two of his last three games. Elflein would immediately improve Miami’s run blocking: ProFootball Focus graded him as the third best run blocker among centers this season, and he was arguably even better at guard.

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He is very intelligent and does a great job forcing defensive linemen from their gaps. He’s powerful, aggressive and has a great feel for gaining leverage against his opponent. Elflein is by no means the fastest offensive lineman prospect, but is a great fit for a power, no-frills blocking scheme that allows him to open holes for downhill runs.

The Ohio State standout is an extremely reliable pass protector as well. He is very good at sustaining blocks and won’t be overpowered by defenders at the next level. If he can perfect his footwork in order to better deal with quicker pass rushers, his game will have very few holes. Miami could ultimately choose to double down on the offensive line after choosing Laremy Tunsil in round one last year and, if they do, Elflein would almost perfectly fit their needs.

Solomon Thomas, Stanford (DE)

Similar to Elflein, Stanford stud Solomon Thomas’ appeal is largely based on his versatility. This man can play all over the defensive line and would be an absolute blessing for a defensive line group that sorely lacks both depth and youth. Adding a player of his caliber and being able to employ him both inside and outside of the defensive line would be indescribably valuable for Joseph.

The Dolphins are still being gashed on the ground and, outside of Suh and perhaps Earl Mitchell, there isn’t a reliable run stopper on the roster. Thomas could step in and immediately enhance the run defense. PFF gave him a 90.7 run defense grade, good for second in the nation, and ranked in the top five in terms of run stopping percentage.

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Thomas was arguably equally as effective against the pass this season. He tallied seven sacks and an additional seven quarterback hurries in 2016 to go along with 13 tackles for a loss, a forced fumble and a 42-yard fumble return for a touchdown. He isn’t a speed rusher, but he is intelligent and has a full arsenal of pass rushing moves to get to the quarterback.

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Drafting Thomas would be a win-win situation for the Dolphins, as it would simultaneously improve two of their biggest weaknesses: a well below average run defense and an inconsistent pass rush. Mario Williams has been terrible in his first season as a Dolphin, and it doesn’t seem likely that he will be back in South Beach in 2017. Cameron Wake has been one of the biggest surprises of 2016, but can’t be heavily relied on past this season. Miami needs an end that can set the edge in run defense without being a liability to their pass rush, and Thomas can be that guy. The fact that he can pair with Suh on the inside as well is simply the cherry on top.

While he seems like a better fit for a 4-3 defense as opposed to a 3-4 defense, Joseph isn’t likely to transition to a new scheme for a few more seasons. As they continue to contend for a playoff spot in 2016, expectations are going to be huge for the Dolphins heading into 2017. Defensive line play is arguably the most vital aspect of Joseph’s defense, and Solomon Thomas could be the next piece of the puzzle.

 

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