Steve Mitchell

Dolphins Position Battles: Promise or Panic?

Laremy Tunsil, Xavien Howard, and Jordan Phillips were high draft picks, but still have not earned their starting spots.

Dolphins rookies T Laremy Tunsil and CB Xavien Howard are in a constant battle for their starting positions this offseason. Tunsil, Miami’s 13th overall pick, is battling Dallas Thomas at left guard, while 2nd rounder Howard is competing against Tony Lippett for the cornerback spot opposite of Byron Maxwell. DT Jordan Phillips was a 2nd rounder in 2015 and still hasn’t won the starting position over veteran Earl Mitchell. Does this situation speak more about the improvements of the Dolphins’ veterans, or less about the promise of their young players?

LG: Laremy Tunsil vs. Dallas Thomas

Ideally, Tunsil shouldn’t have a problem beating out Dallas Thomas for the LG position. Thomas was arguably the team’s worst offensive lineman in 2015, and his 2014 campaign wasn’t great either. so it makes sense that Tunsil, arguably the best player in the 2016 draft, should make easy work of the veteran guard. However, by the end of Minicamp, Thomas was still taking reps with the first-team offense.

This is may be quite baffling to fans who have been frustrated with the left guard’s play the past couple seasons, but there is reason for this. Tunsil has been inconsistent in learning the tasks at LG and LT. He has missed assignments, lost one-on-one matchups, and allowed sacks in practice.

Despite these reports, there is no reason to panic. There are no pads and hitting during OTAs and Minicamp, which makes it almost impossible to judge trench play for offensive and defensive line players. When training camp starts, Tunsil’s physical skills will shine while Thomas’ weaknesses will show. As for Tunsil’s missed assignments, he still has plenty of time to study. 

CB: Xavien Howard vs. Tony Lippett

            This battle is actually intriguing. Both players are young and fit the long, tall, physical prototype that Vance Joseph is looking for.

A 6’3 2015 draft pick, Tony Lippett was listed as a wide receiver. The Fins moved the 5th rounder to corner when they drafted him, a position he had experience with in college. He was one of the many corners the Dolphins tried to match opposite of Brent Grimes during the 2015 season. Being so raw, it was impressive to see him rise from the bottom of the depth chart to become a player on gameday. He played in every game from Week 12 to Week 17, and nearly had a pick against Tom Brady in the last game of the season. There is also tape of him constantly picking off Matt Moore in practice.  

Xavien Howard is Miami’s 2nd round pick from this year. He is 6 feet, provides physical play, and possesses great ball skills. He does a great job of pushing receivers toward the sideline, and boxing them out for jump balls. However, he has a tendency to lose receivers at breakpoint and get beat deep.

This fight does seem tighter than the battle for LG. If the competition is close, expect the nod to go to Howard. The Dolphins gave up a 4th round pick to move up in the 2nd round to draft him. If Lippett wins the job, that would have an outcome of mixed feelings. I’m all for “Let the Best Man Win” philosophy, but that would essentially be the first knock on the new regime considering Lippett is not one of their guys and the picks they invested to select Howard. Regardless of outcome, it would be interesting to see if the lesser man moves to the starting nickel spot.

DT: Earl Mitchell vs. Jordan Phillips

            In truth, this should not even be a competition if it wasn’t for the interesting information that can be attached to this situation.

Earl Mitchell has not done much since becoming a Dolphin especially last season when he produced 14 tackles and no sacks in 12 games. Let me repeat that, 14 tackles. When he came to Miami in 2014, players and coaches raved about his motor and gave him a pass for not producing as a nose tackle in the Texans 3-4 defense. Well, motor isn’t all you need to succeed. You need the talent as well. Since playing in the Dolphins 4-3 defense, Earl Mitchell has not shown signs of a consistent pass rush or run stoppage. And after the 2015 campaign, the excuses are worn out (I wish we could say the same for Tannehill).

Jordan Phillips somewhat outplayed Mitchell by producing 15 tackles and 2 sacks as a rookie. The 2015 2nd round pick was projected to have 1st round talent which is why the Dolphins selected him, although they did not necessarily need him after signing Ndamukong Suh (it was rumored Mike Tannenbaum overrode GM Dennis Hickey when LB Denzel Perryman was still on the board). Although his talent was not a question, his work ethic was. This situation could be an example of his lack of effort showing. But like I mentioned earlier, it’s impossible to judge trench play without pads.

Coach’s Psychology

It has been reported that Adam Gase’s coaching staff changes the depth chart every day. This is to install competition at every level. It is also a great way for high profile players, such as veteran stars and draft picks, not to gain the sense of entitlement and begin to slack off during practice and workouts. The outcomes of some of these battles might be obvious, but it is important for coaches to keep their players scratching and clawing for starting spots. That way, if injuries occur, the player’s mindset stays competitive when opportunity knocks.


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