Minkah Fitzpatrick has rarely had the chance to call a position his own. Even back to his high school days, the defensive back was bouncing all over the secondary.
Fitzpatrick began as a cornerback at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, New Jersey, but when opponents stopped throwing on him, Fitzpatrick moved to safety. With the Alabama Crimson Tide, Fitzpatrick followed a similar trajectory, starting his career as a corner before settling in at safety for his final season.
With the Miami Dolphins, Fitzpatrick has had an even more accelerated path around the secondary. The rookie began the season primarily playing in the middle of the field, whether it was as a safety or slot cornerback, before kicking to the outside in recent weeks.
“If you look at the snap counts,” Fitzpatrick said after practice Friday, “I think it’s just about even.”
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Versatility is a big reason the Dolphins (7-6) drafted Fitzpatrick 11th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. Although Miami lists him as a safety on its roster, the Dolphins knew they would use Fitzpatrick all over the secondary, and every game helps give coach Adam Gase a clearer picture as to what the team has in Fitzpatrick.
Will Fitzpatrick stick at safety? Or is his skill set more valuable out at corner? Gase knows there are benefits to either trajectory.
“Every game that he plays in, especially at corner, he’s learning so much so fast,” Gase said at his post-practice news conference Friday. “He’s been going against some really tough receivers, and it’s going to be in those little details, understanding the rules in the NFL. Sometimes you’re going to get called for the slightest thing where you might have gotten away with it in college.”
Particularly when Xavien Howard has been on the field, Fitzpatrick consistently got tested. Howard is still tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions, which meant opponents started throwing away from the cornerback. It makes sense they would try testing the rookie playing out of position instead.
Fitzpatrick’s toughest game, however, came Sunday against the New England Patriots. Howard sat out with a left knee injury, which meant added responsibility for Fitzpatrick, and the Patriots took advantage. New England threw Fitzpatrick’s way seven times and completed four of those passes for 63 yards. Each completion picked up a first down.
A day later, the Dolphins had an off day, but Fitzpatrick came in to watch film with defensive backs coach Tony Oden anyway. With Howard doubtful for Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, Fitzpatrick should get a chance to rebound against another good passing attack.
“I think I’m surprised that he’s had to move as much as we’ve had him move,” Gase said. “It hasn’t been by design. It’s been by — we have no choice. It’s been unbelievable how he’s handled it. He just goes to work and figures it out.”
Still, Gase won’t commit to Fitzpatrick as a safty long-term. There’s a reason Miami initially envisioned him as a safety — his tools are what teams expect out of a potentially elite safety.
First and foremost, he fills a need at safety right now. Safeties T.J. McDonald and Reshad Jones both thrive while getting to play closer to the line of scrimmage. Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, can cover up the back end, hunting turnovers and making plays in coverage.
But it’s Fitzpatrick’s intelligence which really caught Gase’s eye. At cornerback, Fitzpatrick’s leadership abilities could get lost. Safety might let him maximize his skill set.
“He does such a good job as a safety,” Gase said. “His communication skills are really good. He’s smart. He makes other guys better when he’s playing safety, which lets some of our other guys just roll and when he’s out at corner, it’s probably him and another guy that would have to communicate. He does give us a lot of range back there, too, though, to give us a chance for turnovers.
“T.J. and Reshad are so close. Their skill sets are similar. Those two guys, they want to get in the action, they want to be down in the box. They’re both good at what they do, it’s just there’s two of them, so we’re trying to rotate who’s down, who’s back and all those things, and then Minkah’s athletic ability, especially when we split him inside, causes problems for some of these smaller slots because he’s so big. He can move those guys, get his hands on them, they can’t go anywhere, so that’s where the versatility is great to have. I think corner’s just so tough and he might not get a ball thrown his way whereas safety he’s involved in so much. That’s the value to that.”