Mobile, Ala. — Michigan State wide receiver Tony Lippett had an outstanding season in 2014 and is spending this week trying to convince scouts at the Senior Bowl he can excel in the NFL.
But Lippett, the Big Ten's receiver of the year, might soon find out that his best path to NFL is cornerback, the spot where he made two starts for the Spartans last season to become the school's first two-way starter since 1968.
Lippett certainly has the size to be a receiver in the league at 6-foot-21/2 and 192 pounds, and his 65 catches for 1,198 yards and 11 TDs were proof that he could be productive. But in the pass-happy NFL, it's more important than ever to find guys who can defend 6-4 receivers, and Lippett's length makes him a candidate.
"Personally, I would flip Lippett over and make him a corner," NFL Network draft analyst Charles Davis said. "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."
Davis couched his comment by saying Lippett can certainly be a good receiver, but after watching him play cornerback in Michigan State's Cotton Bowl win over Baylor, Davis thought it was a natural fit.
Fellow NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock was unsure which position would be better for Lippett in the long run, but during the draft process, some teams will want to see him play defense.
"I'm telling you, teams are going to work him out both ways, so he better be ready," Mayock said.
Meanwhile, Lippett looked good at receiver on the North team during the first two days of practice, but it's hard to compare the receivers accurately with consistent quarterback play from Baylor's Bryce Petty, East Carolina's Shane Carden and Oregon State's Sean Mannion.
Lippett said he's been adjusting to how thecoaching staff wants the receivers to run routes as precision is more important in the NFL than college where many receivers can wreak havoc with speed, size or strength.
At Michigan State, Lippett showed progress each year, and with Bennie Fowler graduating, he knew he needed to improve in his senior season.
"My team was going to be looking forward to me making plays and kind of leaning on me, so I had to just step up to the plate and be a leader and be a captain of the team," he said.
One key to his success was working with quarterback Connor Cook outside of practice.
"We worked a lot. We worked a couple times a day, like not even just organized team activities," Lippett said. "We would come out there at like 6, 7 o'clock where it's just us throwing the ball. We'd bring a couple more wide outs out there, a couple more quarterbacks and just work on our timing, work on where we need to be and work on how we run our routes and things like that. We put in a lot of work, and it kind of showed off last year."
Through the first few days of the Senior Bowl, Lippett said the teams with which he's spent the most time were the 49ers, Patriots, Vikings and Buccaneers. Teams are curious about his route running, speed and size, and a couple have asked about his devastating block on Baylor kicker Chris Callahan on a blocked field goal in the fourth quarter of the Cotton Bowl.
Some teams have asked him about playing cornerback, but Lippett said those discussions have been short. Mayock said he ought to keep his options open.
"I think every team is going to look at him and do their own evaluation," Mayock said. "As we go along in the process, certain teams are going to visit him and ask him to do both. I think the intrigue with that kid is his versatility. I think every team in the league is going to give him an opportunity to show that."
Before starting at cornerback against Penn State and in the bowl game, Lippett made five starts there in 2011 as a redshirt freshman. Having experience on defense will help if he has to make the transition, but he'd have to prove he can improve his footwork and change his mentality.
"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," Mayock said. "With all those big-bodied wide receivers, more and more teams are looking for corners that are 6-feet and above. The way the league thinks is there's too many 5-foot-8 and 5-foot-9 corners that are losing jump balls outside the numbers and in the red zone."