INDIANAPOLIS - Michigan State receiver Tony Lippett stands 6'2, weighs in at 192 pounds and has nearly 33 inch arms. The standout Spartan is one of the few, if any, players at the 2015 NFL Combine who played both offense and defense this past season, and he's one of the few who still may not know his true NFL position.
Let's take a quick trip down memory lane.
At the 2011 NFL Combine, a cornerback from Stanford checked in at 6'3, 195 pounds. Richard Sherman was a two-year starter at the cornerback position after spending the two years before that as a receiver. He was somewhat raw, relatively new to cornerback, ran a little slow, and because of all this, fell into the fifth round before a team decided to take a chance on him. Fast forward four years, and Sherman is a three-time first-team All-Pro for the Seahawks, and earning every cent of a four-year, $57.4 million contract extension.
A big part of the reason Sherman has intercepted more passes than any other player since he entered the league stems from his experience as a receiver his first two seasons at Stanford. Sherman has credited his time on the offense for his ability to read offensive formations, pick up on subtle tendencies, sense nuances in receiver splits and footwork and subsequently anticipate and react to routes and route combinations. He very frequently "runs the receiver's route for him" to get under passes, go up and intercept them.
Front offices and coaching staffs haven't overlooked this, and any scouting department would be derelict of their duties if they weren't out there looking for the next Richard Sherman to fall through the cracks.
Backing off the hype train a little bit, let me state that I am not predicting Tony Lippett will be the next Richard Sherman just because they have similar sinewy frames and backgrounds in position-switches. Just because Sherman was on the Pac-10 All-Freshman team and was an Honorable Mention Freshman All-American as a receiver doesn't mean the inverse -- Lippett as a great cornerback -- will be true. I'm not even predicting that he'll be a cornerback in the NFL, but his play in the secondary isn't lost on scouts.
"Some teams have been interested in me playing corner," Lippett said Thursday.
The bump in value that Lippett provides teams as a solid mid-round receiver prospect is a little bit of that ever-pursued but sometimes unattainable potential. He has the potential to be a very good, potentially great cornerback, -- in three games at cornerback, he was targeted just eight times, notched three passes defensed, and only giving up a paltry 13 receiving yards. That's something that seems to have piqued the interest of NFL franchises as they congregate at the NFL Combine.
SB Nation presents: Ways to make the NFL Combine better
Tony Lippett had a great career as a receiver for the Spartans, finishing second in school history with 149 receptions and in the top-10 in school history with 2,247 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. He says he wants to be a receiver. He's taking part in the receiver group here in Indy.
That said, don't be surprised to see him doing drills in defensive posture in the not-too-far future. "Not today, but in the near future, definitely going to be the opportunity for everyone to see me backpedaling," said Lippett.
And, it comes as no surprise. A physical, long, but still quick cornerback is becoming more and more valuable in the modern NFL with 6'3, 6'4, 6'5, or taller receivers increasingly being featured in offenses league-wide. A guy who can match up with the Dez Bryants, Demaryius Thomases, A.J. Greens, Brandon Marshalls, and of course, Calvin Johnsons -- that's no small value.
"Personally, I would flip Lippett over and make him a corner," NFL Network draft analyst Charles Davis said after watching Lippett at the Senior Bowl. "I wouldn't even hesitate. I just think with his length, the league is dying to get corners that can go out and match up with the monster receivers that are out there, and I think that that would be a way to distinguish himself a little bit. And personally, I think his upside is better over there than it is being another one of these receivers."
2015 NFL Draft
NFL mock draft: The blockbuster trade edition
We see franchise-altering trades in the draft almost every year. This year could be no different, especially if a team wants to move up to draft a quarterback.
2015 NFL Draft
Everyone loves a big red zone target, but being big doesn't mean you can hack it in the NFL.
"If I was in the NFL, I'd really want to grind him a little bit and see if he could be an NFL-quality corner because the length intrigues me," fellow NFL Network analyst and draft guru Mike Mayock added.
"With all those big-bodied wide receivers, more and more teams are looking for corners that are 6-feet and above," Mayock said. The way the league thinks is there's too many 5'8 and 5'9 corners that are losing jump balls outside the numbers and in the red zone."
"I've been playing wide receiver my whole life. My strengths include attacking the ball, and, I mean, I probably have strengths as a corner, too, but I haven't played corner like that," he conceded.
While he's played receiver since youth football, Lippett started five games at cornerback in 2011 then returned as the starter for the final three games of his Michigan State career.
"Early on," he said, "We had three or four senior wide receivers my freshman year. I played safety in high school, and Coach D (Dantonio) knew that. Coach D is a defensive back guy, so he moved me over there, and I just started to try to embrace the position. Try to learn the technique. Try to feel out my role as best that I could. So, I started to play it my freshman year, then it opened up again my senior year, the last three games. So I just tried to take it all in, have fun out there."
He notes that playing corner has helped him understand how to be a more effective receiver, but as Richard Sherman has noted many times during his career, that added understanding of nuance goes both ways.
Playing corner "helps me just as far as knowing what a corner wants to do," he told media members gathered around a his table at Lucas Oil Stadium. "Knowing what they're thinking as far as where I line up, as far as leverage, as far as when I get an inside release, and outside release, what routes are already in their head, eliminating things like that. I try to do things like that to manipulate how I run it. If I get an outside release, I'll probably try to make an in-route, because the eyes on that are really different. Just try to manipulate as much as I can."
SB Nation presents: What happens when the Eagles trade their entire draft for Mariota
Sounds like a guy who studies tendencies and technique, and tries to take advantage of those things.
"I feel like I had the same mentality" on both sides of the ball, he said. "On defense, you gotta be more tuned in at all times. On offense, a wide receiver can probably take a play off or something like that (said with a laugh), but on defense, a corner can't take a play off, because then you'll get run right by. You have to be locked in on your keys, and just take advantage of that play."
So, would he be disappointed if he was selected by a team with cornerback in mind?
"No, I wouldn't. I'd just be happy that a team drafted me. That's a blessing in itself. That's just something that I'd have to live with and make the best of. I'm ready to do it."
Would he rather be a great corner or an average receiver, if that were the choice in hindsight?
"I'd rather be a great ball player."