Dolphins' Minkah Fitzpatrick more valuable without set role

DAVIE, Fla. -- Minkah Fitzpatrick is the Miami Dolphins' chess piece, constantly roaming and strategizing how to capture the opponent’s king.

The Dolphins drafted Fitzpatrick in April with this in mind. His versatility is a perfect fit as NFL defenses continue to make a transition to more position-less football. Fitzpatrick is the type of player who can help change the Dolphins' culture with his play on the field and his mentality in the locker room.

If Fitzpatrick lives up to his potential, he should be the next household name among top-level hybrid defensive backs. He’s destined for a role without a set name, but it's one that holds plenty of value, as we’ve seen with players such as Tyrann Mathieu, Kam Chancellor and Malcolm Jenkins.

“I can see myself in that group,” said Fitzpatrick, a two-time All-American out of Alabama who had nine interceptions, including four pick-sixes, in his three college seasons. “That’s what I did in college. And that’s what I planned to do when I got to the league.

“My goal right now is to establish myself as a great player on this team, a great player on this defense and get the older guys and coaches to trust me. You don’t want a rookie guy out there you can’t trust. I want to show that I’m a rookie but I can play like a vet.”

A great example of Fitzpatrick’s promise came during the Dolphins’ first preseason game, on the second defensive drive.

Fitzpatrick showed off his range, fluidly moving from a midfield safety spot to break up a 25-yard pass that was intended for Bucs receiver Chris Godwin on the sideline. One play later, Fitzpatrick came down from his safety perch to deliver a lick on Bucs back Ronald Jones and forced an incompletion.

What looked like a possible Bucs scoring drive ended in a punt because of two Fitzpatrick plays.

“He picks things up very quickly,” Dolphins coach Adam Gase said. “The guy is a relentless worker."

When the Dolphins returned to practice, Fitzpatrick moved from second-team safety to first-team slot cornerback. Miami decided it had to have Fitzpatrick on the field more.

“Minkah flashed in the spring and continues to get better,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “He’s going to be big-time for us.”

Shortly after he was drafted 11th overall in April’s draft, the Dolphins told Fitzpatrick they didn’t know exactly which position he would play. He began learning free safety, then a dime-package hybrid position. Now he’s playing slot cornerback.

Fitzpatrick admits it’s "challenging" to move around while still learning the scheme, but it helps that the Dolphins’ defense is similar to the one he played in at Alabama. He played a "star" fifth defensive back position and safety primarily in college.

“Playing slot in the nickel is definitely the hardest position,” Fitzpatrick said. “It challenges you mentally and physically. You’re kind of on an island. You gotta know where your help is and what everybody around you is doing. You’re often covering the fastest and quickest guy.”

Gase said the coaching staff is cognizant of how much Fitzpatrick can absorb as a rookie, but versatility is king in the NFL. Fitzpatrick has yet to show any signs that he has too much on his plate. Eventually, the goal is to give Fitzpatrick two main positions where he will spend most of the season.

Fitzpatrick began his transition by watching what versatile corner Bobby McCain (slot corner by nature, but he also plays outside corner and safety) did on the field in practice and during 2017 games. Then he studied tapes of Dolphins safeties Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald.

“It’s a tough job, but he’s a first-round draft pick. Expectations are high for him. We expect a lot of things from him,” Jones said. “With him being interchangeable and being able to play a lot of positions, it benefits him and helps this team. I’m excited to have him, excited to see what he’s going to do this season.”

Fitzpatrick will have the freedom to be a natural playmaker. He'll also play a big role covering tight ends, one of the Dolphins' biggest 2017 struggles.

People inside the Dolphins organization are optimistic about Fitzpatrick’s chances to be a Defensive Rookie of the Year-caliber player in 2018.

“I’m working pretty hard and usually Adam is the last car in the parking lot when I leave and sometimes Minkah’s car is still there, and I’m going, ‘I better go back in and see what’s going on. What did I miss?’” Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke said. “He’s done a good job. It’s important to him. He puts the time in and I think it’s showing.”

Burke loved Fitzpatrick's play forcing those two incompletions, but he pointed to another situation -- an initial Fitzpatrick mistake -- that caught his eye in the first preseason game.

On the Bucs’ first offensive drive, Peyton Barber punched in a 4-yard touchdown run on third-and-3 partly because Fitzpatrick didn’t fill his hole. The Dolphins don’t see a lot of two-back sets in practice, so Fitzpatrick was uncertain about his fit. The next series, he saw the same fit and stuffed the back after a 2-yard gain.

"Even within the game, for him to be able to adjust -- to adapt like that -- was positive,” Burke said.

The Dolphins have struggled to find a reliable boundary cornerback outside of Xavien Howard, so a possible Week 1 nickel lineup could include Howard and McCain on the outside, Jones and McDonald at safety and Fitzpatrick at slot corner. It’s a lineup full of versatility.

“We can be great,” Fitzpatrick said. “We got so many different pieces that can move around, the safeties, me and Bobby. We’re real versatile. We can have three safeties out there. We can have three corners out there. Not many teams can do that.”