Sophomore Year. It's a big step. Rookie year can't be easy for NFL players and all players adjust to it differently. A handful of Dolphins personnel will enter the 2016 season as a second-year player for the Dolphins. In a new regime, every single one has an opportunity to build off their rookie season and make a name for themselves. I'd think that most of them would look up to Jarvis Landry, who crushed his second year last season and took the league by storm (once again), landing on the NFL's Top 100 list.
While Miami's youth is expected to be battle-tested at lengths this upcoming season, these three upcoming players I believe have the best chance to breakout and be big time play-makers for years to come.
Some players coming out of college are smacked with the label of "raw" as a prospect. While this word is thrown around for a variety of reasons around the draft, for players like Tony Lippett it does seem to make a lot of sense. You would think that a player may be "raw" if they were drafted to play an entire different position in the pros.
Lippett ended the 2014 season as Michigan's State best wide receiver and best cornerback. He was arguably the team MVP. People were torn on where he should line up in the pros but he was selected at the end of 5th round in the 2015 draft by Miami to line up as a cornerback. He didn't really get an opportunity to do much in Miami last year behind Brent Grimes and Brice McCain, however he did play in 9 games and showed pretty solid coverage ability in limited playing time. This season however Miami is desperately looking for one of their young corners to step up and Lippett has a prime opportunity to win a starting position opposite of Byron Maxwell.
Lippett has the size to thrive in Vance Joseph's scheme and be a big time player for this defense. His 6'2/6'3 height, prime leaping ability and ball skills as a former receiver already gives him a leg up on a handful young corners in the league. In addition, he now has a year of experience and the previous knowledge of understanding receiver routes, so many already view him as the favorite to start at CB2, despite this team drafting Xavien Howard in the second round of this year's draft. Both Chris Gamble and Richard Sherman played both ways in college before becoming all-pro corners in the NFL. Can Lippett join such good company?
Oh, also... he's not afraid to hit.
Good hit Tony, but better not let Commish see that one if you don't want to be banned for life.
Ifo Ekpre Olomu -
For some reason, Ekpre-Olomu (IEO) was drafted all the way in the 7th round by the Browns. Less than a year later he was released. I was thrilled to see Miami claim him on waivers this offseason, because he was one of my favorite corners of the 2014 draft.
IEO went from a 1st round talent to just another guy looking for a roster spot and all it took was one injury. While practicing for the Rose Bowl he tore his ACL and later revealed that he dislocated his knee as well. This tumbled him all to the seventh round and kept his career on the Browns bench relatively short lived. Being cut by the Browns is never a good sign..
But.... If Miami can get IEO on the field and back to health, they are going to get one hell of a player.
Despite his smaller height (he's listed at 5'9) he shows a handful of qualities that you find in elite cornerbacks. He plays his size well and has great hips and is fantastic at turning and looking for the ball. Look at the image below, and you can see how he defends the larger receiver one-on one in the redzone. He is physical enough to push the receiver off his route and then flips his hips and locates the ball while showing a good vertical to knock the pass away and prevent a touchdown. It's these cover skills that show him as a true cover corner, and one that won't shy against using his abilities to cover bigger or stronger receivers.
IEO plays alot like we were used to seeing Brent Grimes play at his best days here in Miami. He's a quick-footed, shorter corner who can play press or off man and has a knack for the ball. He could be an excellent slot corner in this scheme if his recovery goes wonderfully so keep an eye on IEO to challenge the starting nickel cornerback. And speaking of the starting nickel cornerback...
Bobby McCain -
McCain seems to rely more on his athleticism than his cover skills and has a knack for playing with a certain intensity and making big plays for his team. He used his insane athleticism at Memphis to play outside corner, inside corner, and he even returned kicks. In his last two seasons at Memphis he racked up 19 passes defended and 11 interceptions. One of those interceptions, highlighted below, shows him running stride for stride in man coverage and blanketing the receiver. The QB (who appears to be in some relation to Mark Sanchez) throws an ill-advised throw and McCain comes up with one of the easiest interceptions he can make.
Personally, I believe that IEO showcases more pro-style attributes as a starting corner in this league, however I wouldn't sleep on McCain. He graded out with a PFF grade of 66.7, which is somewhat impressive considering he was a fifth round rookie last season. Although his pass grade was a tad bit higher than his run grade, I think McCain can be beneficial in run support, especially with multiple receivers also on the field. He uses his athleticism to shed blocks well and has closing speed to slow down running backs before they make their first cut. Even though he doesn't make the tackle below, it's his effort that makes this a loss of six yards.
PS. Also, awful blocking but so you know, it wasn't Tunsil's fault on this play.
When you consider the fact that this will be McCain's second year and IEO is still in his rehab stage, you would have to think that the second year corner from Memphis will be the favorite for the team's starting nickel corner. He has a long way to go, but if he can build on his rookie season he could be a solid defensive back for the Dolphins.
So there you have it. Three defensive sophomores listed as breakout players to watch... and all three play in the secondary. How often do you think the word "potential" is going to be thrown around when looking at this young backfield all season? This backfield has a ton of question marks but I do see some talent. Let's see who steps up this season, and you would have to think with the guidance of Vance Joseph and his experience coaching defensive secondaries, that Miami already has a few unpolished diamonds in the rough.