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Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph: Cornerbacks 'an ongoing battle'

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Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph spoke about the team's cornerback position battle this week. Head coach Adam Gase weighed in as well.

NFL: Miami Dolphins-Training Camp
Miami Dolphins cornerback Tony Lippett (36) during practice drills.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins have overhauled their secondary after a disappointing 2015 season. While the grouping is still centered around Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones, the cornerbacks will feature all new starters, and it is not yet known who will be those starters. Byron Maxwell, for whom the team traded this offseason, is assumed to be locked into one spot, but there are several players in the running for the other starting spot, as well as the nickel cornerback position, and the depth spots behind them.

“It’s going well," Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said on Monday. "Obviously, Maxwell is a guy we’re hoping to be our starting right corner. We have (Tony) Lippett and (Xavien) Howard competing for the left side. (We) also (have) Bobby McCain involved. It’s an ongoing battle, but you guys all know (that) to be a great secondary, we need three or four guys who can play. That’s important (to) keep those guys. It’s getting better every day.”

Philadelphia Eagles v Carolina Panthers
Byron Maxwell #31 of the Philadelphia Eagles during their game at Bank of America Stadium on October 25, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolin
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Miami released Brent Grimes after three Pro Bowl seasons with the team this offseason. Grimes and the Dolphins appear to have simply grown apart, and the two sides made the decision to move on from each other. The Dolphins will now be looking toward Maxwell to fill the top cornerback role, replacing the 15 starts, four interceptions, 14 passes defensed, and 49 tackles from Grimes last year.

To bolster the group, the Dolphins added Xavien Howard in the second round of the 2016 Draft. The rookie was immediately penciled into the starting lineup, though Tony Lippett, a second-year player after being selected in the fifth round in 2015, is improving in his conversion from a college wide receiver to an NFL cornerback.

“I think we’re getting the same reps," Howard said after the Organized Team Activity workout on Monday, speaking about the competition between he and Lippett. "We’re just going to compete – Tony (and I) – on the other side of Maxwell. But (I am) learning from him – learning from Tony and Maxwell.”

Howard was a focus for the media on Monday, with several questions asked of Joseph about the rookie. “Not yet," Miami's defensive coordinator explained when asked if Howard knows how to use his size (6-foot, 201 pounds) to his advantage yet. "He has showed us that he has great movement skills. He has long speed. He has ball skills. He has great lateral quickness. Obviously, being a rookie, he knows nothing about playing the position on this level but talent-wise, he’s what we thought he was going to be."

Xavien Howard of Baylor breaks up a pass against Oklahoma State.

“Vance Joseph leans on me hard, so he’s expecting a lot from me," Howard said of the defensive coordinator. "I have to work hard every day and listen to him.”

“His footwork is really good," Joseph continued about Howard. "His patience – his eye progression – it needs some work. That’s most young corners coming to the league. In college, you can kind of put your eyes in the wrong spots and still make plays, because the quarterbacks aren’t as accurate. But in the NFL, if you put your eyes in the wrong spot, you won’t make a play. That’s his issue – it’s really eye progression – even patience you could say.”

I’ve seen a guy that’s really stepped up and competed at this level," head coach Adam Gase added to the discussion of Howard. "He’s seen a lot of different routes, probably more than what he saw in college. And the guys he’s going against are pretty good. To see all these different looks and being able to stick with a lot of these guys has been impressive. I know the thing that you love about this kid is he’s just constantly working. Being around guys like Maxwell and seeing what he does day in day out, he has a great guy to kind of learn under. And then Lippett and him are just battling. It’s like, ‘Who’s going to be the guy?’ And they just keep fighting.”

The nickel cornerback position has yet to be decided as well. Bobby McCain, another fifth-round pick from 2015 for Miami, is thought to have the early edge in the competition, but like the outside cornerbacks, it is still an open battle. “Nickel is going," Joseph said of the competition. "We have Bobby McCain working there. We have the young kid from Penn State – (2016 sixth-round pick Jordan) Lucas – working there, also. (Tyler) Patmon is working there, also. That’s an, obviously, important job. That’s a starting position. Most of your snaps are going to be in nickel, so that spot is obviously an important spot. And we have to find a guy who can do it from down to down.”

Miami Dolphins v Tennessee Titans
Bobby McCain #28 of the Miami Dolphins runs the ball and is pursued by Zach Brown #55 of the Tennessee Titans at LP Field on October 18, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. The Dolphins defeated the Titans 38-10.
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The Dolphins also have former Cleveland Browns cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who is returning from an ACL tear that forced him to miss the entire 2015 season, his rookie year after being selected in the seventh round by the Browns. Ekpre-Olomu was injured in practice leading into Oregon's Rose Bowl appearance, causing him to fall from a potential first-round pick to the Browns taking a flyer on him in the seventh round. A year later, Cleveland waived him, with Miami winning the waiver claim this offseason. “We’re taking it slow with him," Joseph said of Ekpre-Olomu. "He had a, obviously, serious, serious knee injury, and it has probably been a year – a year and a couple months – from his injury. We’re taking it slow with him. (We are) hoping to get him to camp, so we can give him more attention. But right now, we’re feeding him some reps slowly, so we can get him back in the groove of playing football.”

The position battle at cornerback is not all-work all-the-time, however, as there has been a lot of fun trash talking already noted between the group - specifically Maxwell - and Gase. “There’s probably a little favoritism towards the offense but I guess that’s just been something that I’ve enjoyed being around the DBs," Gase said of the trashing talking with Maxwell. "I always love the swagger that they come with. You don’t hear a lot of offensive guys talking a lot of time. Defensive guys have a tendency to talk a little more and I love that. I love the energy when the guys bring that and as soon as he (Maxwell) arrived...He was part of one of the greatest defenses in the history of football in 2013 with Seattle and he has that to him. That’s the way he was raised coming into this league and that’s what we want from him. We want him to have that swagger. We want him to have that confidence and I just like being around that. For me, it gets me going before practice when I see him; I know I’m going to say something. Like today, he started off with me. I mean he came at me hard so that was good. And I love that and it gets me going for practice.”

“I try," Gase said of his ability to trash talk with the defensive backs. "I can’t keep up though.”

“No, that’s not different for me" Lucas said if it is different for a coach to trash talk the defensive backs. "Coach (Bill) O’Brien did that when I was at Penn State. It was fun. It made practice fun. We competed and that’s what we do here. Coach Gase is an offensive guy so that makes it fun for us.”

Asked if he thinks Gase "has it out" for the defense because of Gase's background as an offensive coach, Lucas replied, “No, no. Not at all. It’s actually, I think, better for the team, honestly. One, he’s an offensive guy, that’s great for the offense. Two, he’s able to come into our defensive meeting room and our d-backs room and tell us exactly how they are trying to attack us...when we’re in a certain look, what he thinks and how he is going to try to attack us. So I think it’s great for our defense and our d-backs.”

Miami will complete their Organized Team Activities this week, then hold their one mandatory event - the veteran minicamp - next week. After that, the team will break until the end of July, when training camp will begin.