The Miami Dolphins are expected to use their defensive jack-of-all-trades Minkah Fitzpatrick like the Swiss Army Knife that he is. He could be a strong safety. He could be a free safety. He could be a linebacker. He could be a boundary cornerback. He could be a field cornerback. He could be a slot cornerback. Fitzpatrick could be just about anything the Dolphins want - and need - him to be.
But Pro Football Focus believes the Dolphins will be misusing their 2018 first-round draft pick if they do not make him a permanent slot cornerback.
“Turning Fitzpatrick into a Swiss army knife in 2019 and a deep safety in years following will take him away from what has been his best position over the past four years: slot cornerback,” writes PFF’s Austin Gayle.
Miami wants to settle Fitzpatrick into a safety role as his ultimate position, likely using him as the centerfield and coverage safety next to a player like Reshad Jones who plays up in the box and is a run-support safety. They come into 2019, however, with three starting caliber safeties, a luxury they will use by moving all three of them around and playing them in different roles at different times.
“It’s not that Fitzpatrick isn’t versatile,” Gayle explains. “The 6-foot-1, 202-pounder has all the tools necessary to hold his own at nearly any defensive position with added experience. He’s just really good at a slot cornerback position that has increased in value significantly in recent years.
“NFL offenses used three or more wide receivers in 2018 nearly twice as often as they did in 2008,” he continued. “The offensive shift is forcing defenses to adapt and add a fifth defensive back – the slot cornerback – to play a significant role. In turn, the league average for base personnel on defense dropped to just 25% in 2018, turning primary slot cornerbacks like Desmond King II, Kendall Fuller, Justin Coleman and now Fitzpatrick into starters – not rotational players.”
Gayle explains that Fitzpatrick’s grade as a slot cornerback in 2018 - where he played 379 snaps - ranked him among the elite defensive backs covering in the slot. He was ranked first in completion percentage allows, first in passer rating allowed, and ninth in coverage grade. Going back to his college performance, he was graded as the top slot coverage player ever in the PFF college era (2014-2018).
Gayle compared Fitzpatrick’s slot grade, a 79.3, to his grade when he played anywhere else on the field, sub-60.0, and said Miami’s “decision should be easy.”
He concludes, writing, “Safety isn’t nearly as valuable as cornerback – outside or slot – and he’s already on track to be one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL. Let him drop to his ideal playing weight and continue to turn in high-end results at slot cornerback – one of the NFL’s most valuable defensive positions.”
The problem is, Miami already has a really good slot cornerback in Bobby McCain. Fitzpatrick could excel at slot cornerback, but this could be a situation where playing Fitzpatrick at a different position gives Miami two really good defensive backs on the field rather than playing Fitzpatrick at the slot and losing McCain’s strength. Yes, Miami could move McCain to the outside opposite Xavien Howard, but he seems more comfortable inside. And, when you have a Swiss Army Knife like Fitzpatrick, you can afford to move him around.
PFF sees Fitzpatrick as “already on track to be one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL,” but Miami seems him as a safety. They list him as a safety on their roster. They want him to be their free safety. They realize he is versatile and will move him around to create mismatches and cause issues with opposing offenses, but Fitzpatrick’s future seems to be at safety in South Florida.
The Dolphins have long needed a true free safety. Someone who can be the center fielder. Someone who is the last line of defense. Someone who can be a ball hawk. Someone who can cover a tight end or a running back when needed. That is Minkah Fitzpatrick. He could be great in the slot, but, with his versatility, he could be great wherever he plays - and Miami is betting on that.