Back in May, if you had to identify returning Dolphins most at risk of losing their starting job, safety T.J. McDonald would have ranked high on that list.
After all, McDonald played the same position as the Dolphins’ first-round draft pick , Minkah Fitzpatrick. And Miami’s other safety, Pro Bowler Reshad Jones, was clearly not going to lose his job.
Instead of meekly succumbing to the ballyhooed rookie, McDonald has been so effective that the Dolphins moved Fitzpatrick to nickel back, allowing Bobby McCain to play on the boundary and McDonald to remain on the field throughout. The struggles of cornerback Cordrea Tankersley also weighed heavily into that decision.
““We want to get all the best players on the field,” Jones said. “I like the group. I like the change that was made.”
When McDonald saw the Dolphins draft a safety, he naturally had questions.
“I didn’t necessarily think what was going to happen with me,” he said this past week. “It was, ‘OK, how are we all going to make this work?’”
After the draft, coach Adam Gase and defensive coordinator Matt Burke reached out to McDonald to reassure him he was in the plans.
“I will keep our conversations private, but it was all good things,” McDonald said. “They showed nothing but love. I work my [butt] off every day for those guys….
“Seeing how it’s all playing out, we’re excited to move forward with this. Minkah is special. Coach is going to find a way to get the best out of all three of us.”
When the Dolphins drafted Fitzpatrick, they were open to the idea of Fitzpatrick starting at safety if he beat out McDonald. After all, the Dolphins emerged from last season unsure whether the Reshad Jones/McDonald tandem would ever be as productive as they hoped.
Jones and McDonald played the final eight games together after McDonald’s eight-game NFL suspension for a vehicular violation. Though blame can be shared among many players, the opposing quarterback had a passer rating between 100 and 120 in four of those final eight games and a passer rating surpassing 94 in six of the eight games.
Jones had a 120.9 passer rating in his coverage area for the entire season and McDonald 112.3.
“I don’t think it really turned out as well as we thought with what we saw in training camp,” Gase said in March. “That eight week layoff, T.J. did a great job of being ready to go. [But] we didn’t have that chemistry we were looking for.”
But that changed during the offseason program. Even though both Jones and McDonald might be at their best playing closer to the line of scrimmage, there haven’t been any major breakdowns in preseason pass coverage where the safety play was to blame.
“I do think he has that ability to keep things in front of him,” Gase said of McDonald. “But at the same time, I don’t think he’s really going to lose that aggression that he has naturally.”
McDonald was around the ball a lot in August practices, with multiple interceptions to show for it. He believes he’s a better player than a year ago.
“First off, just being comfortable in this scheme,” he said. “I played a complete different scheme in the past. Being more under control. And I’m just hungry.”
Because McDonald has been more effective in pass coverage through preseason and training camp, that gives the Dolphins greater comfort in alternating how they play their safeties. At times, Jones can be downfield and McDonald in the box. Other times, they can try the opposite.
“You turn on the film, teams are going to have to respect both of us in the box,” McDonald said. “They will have to try to figure it out. It’s a chess match we’ll enjoy playing.”
And with Fitzpatrick able to play safety or slot corner, that gave the Dolphins the opportunity to play their five best defensive backs in nickel packages – Reshad Jones, Xavien Howard, McDonald, Fizpatrick and Bobby McCain.
What can the group of Jones, McDonald and Fitzpatrick achieve as a troika?
“It can be ugly for teams,” McDonald said. “We can be really good. It’s going to be tough for teams to ID where we’re at. Minkah is a smart guy.”
▪ Among the upshots of McCain playing boundary corner: The Dolphins believe they are stronger against the run with Jones, McDonald and Fitzpatrick all on the field in nickel situations.
“I don’t think our other guys are really afraid to mix it up, either, between T.J. and Minkah,” Gase said. “That’s why Minkah has extra value with being able to play nickel. That helps us in the run game because those receivers can’t block him.”
THIS AND THAT
▪ Receiver DeVante Parker (doubtful) was the only Dolphin on the injury report. Parker’s broken finger is still preventing him from catching passes.
▪ Gase said the decision on whether Brock Osweiler or David Fales will be the No. 2 quarterback on Sunday will be a “gut feel.”
Fales said he and Osweiler split scout team reps this week. He said Gase conveyed to him, after roster cuts, that “he believes in me and Brock and believes we can both play.”
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