The Miami Dolphins could soon see a developmental project in the starting lineup, just 15 weeks into his transition from wide receiver to cornerback. Rookie fifth-round draft pick Tony Lippett, who mostly played wide receiver at Michigan State, could be thrust into the starting lineup for the first time this week as fellow rookie Bobby McCain deals with the effects of a concussion he sustained last week. Lippett has primarily been seen on special teams this year, with a few snaps on defense sprinkled across the year.
Miami was eliminated from the playoffs in Week 14, the earliest they have been eliminated since the last year of the Tony Sparano era, and are starting to look toward their younger players in an effort to develop them and get them experience before a heavier workload in 2016.
"Just play ball," Lippett told the South Florida Sun Sentinel's Omar Kelly on what he has to do going up against San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers this week. "If he's throwing the ball your way, make a play on the ball. He's a great player, great quarterback and things like that, so I'm just trying to go out there, take it one play at a time and just make something happen."
"This week feels a little different," Lippett added, according to Miami's CBS4. "I've probably got a little more focus and attention to detail, and I'm watching a little more film. But I don't want to let the moment get so big I can't compete."
Dolphins coaches have been excited about Lippett nearly as soon as he stepped on the practice field for the first time. Lippett did have some playing time at cornerback in college, but the transition from being primarily a receiver to a true cornerback was expected to take some time. Lippett, however, showed great instincts for the position and seemed to constantly be in the right position. That continued into the Preseason, where he showed the fans flashes of what he could eventually become as a member of the team's secondary.
"He brings a unique skillset to us in that he's long, he's got some length to him in both height and arm length," Miami defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said on Thursday. "He led the Big Ten in receptions last year, he obviously has good hands and he can play the ball when it's in the air which is one of the key things these days being a DB in the NFL. It's just a matter of getting comfortable at the position and doing that at the highest level. He's coming along and he's taking great strides."
Those strides may lead him right into the starting job this week, facing a pass happy Chargers offense. Rivers is currently third in passing yards in the league, just shy of 4,000 yards with three games to play. The team is fourth in the league in passing yards per game, averaging 293 yards through the air in each contest. Rivers has completed 66.4 percent of his passes this season, fifth in the league. It is against this offense that Lippett could be asked to start, a daunting task for any rookie, let along one who is just starting to fine-tune his understanding of the position.
This could be a glimpse of the future of the position for the Dolphins, where Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes appears to have lost a step this year and the team seems ready to give up on Jamar Taylor. Bobby McCain and Lippett, if they can continue to develop and gain experience over the last few weeks, could find themselves on the inside track to be among the team's starters next year. Lippett will get his first chance to prove himself this week.