Rookie Minkah Fitzpatrick has now spent a month at a position he never necessarily expected to be playing when the Dolphins drafted him: boundary cornerback.
And though he said he has no preference between cornerback and safety, Fitzpatrick is growing more comfortable on the outside, not only with playing there but also with the possibility that this could be his future home.
On Sunday, with Xavien Howard out with a knee injury and a potent New England offense awaiting, Fitzpatrick faces his biggest test since shifting from the slot to the boundary.
Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke said this week that it’s “hard to say” whether Fitzpatrick would be better suited long-term at safety or cornerback but believes he can do either equally effectively.
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“There is still some techniques stuff that he is working through [at boundary],” Burke said. “I think everywhere we’ve played him he’s done a good job. There was a little bit of a learning curve early, but he settled into it quickly, and he’s done a good job out there.”
After playing more at boundary than he did the past two years at Alabama, Fitzpatrick now feels he would be fine there.
“The more experience I get, the more and more comfortable I get out there,” he said. “I could see myself doing it long-term. If that’s what the team needs me to do, that’s what I’ll do. If they need me to play free safety, I will play free safety.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Fitzpatrick has played 96 snaps in coverage at boundary cornerback and has allowed five completions in 11 targets for just 46 yards, one first down and an excellent 57.4 passer rating against. He was called for one pass interference, against Buffalo last Sunday.
“I’m doing a pretty decent job,” he said. “I am going to make some mistakes. I am a young dude. I’m not trying to use that as an excuse.”
So is he tempted to ever ask where the Dolphins see him playing long-term? No, he said.
“Right now, I’m at corner,” he said. “That’s where I see myself and that’s where I guess they see me.”
So did he envision himself as a safety or corner when he fantasized about being an NFL player growing up?
“I just pictured myself all over the field,” he said. “Growing up, it might have been more offense. In college, more defense.”
Whether the Dolphins leave Fitzpatrick at cornerback will be based primarily on how he plays the next four weeks, but also could be affected by how well T.J. McDonald plays.
If they wanted to move on from McDonald and make Fitzpatrick a starting safety, that would save only $1.4 million in cap space with $4.6 million in dead money. That McDonald release would need to be done with a post-June 1 designation. Cutting Reshad Jones would be cost-prohibitive, with considerable dead money, making that unlikely.
It would require a sizable cap allocation for Miami to cut McDonald or Jones, move Fitzpatrick to safety and sign a starter-worthy cornerback.
Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills said he could see Fitzpatrick thriving at boundary cornerback long-term.
“The thing that’s most key about his game is how quickly he’s becoming a professional, his film study, how hard he works on his technique,” Stills said. “You don’t see that from a young guy very often. He’s going to be successful wherever he plays.”
And as Howard said recently, “he’s only going to get better from here.”
As expected, Howard was ruled out for Sunday’s Patriots game with a knee injury. That means Fitzpatrick and Bobby McCain are expected to play the boundary cornerback spots in base defense against New England, with McCain moving to the slot in nickel packages and Torry McTyer playing the boundary.
Rookie sixth-rounder Cornell Armstrong also could get some snaps.
McCain has been victimized in recent weeks and overall has allowed a 108.9 passer rating in his coverage area this season and three touchdowns. Fitzpatrick’s overall passer rating against is excellent (56.2). Howard’s is 62.6.
McTyer has struggled badly when thrown at; in 140 coverage snaps, he has allowed 15 of 18 passes in his coverage area to be caught for 269 yards and one touchdown — a bloated 137.3 passer rating.
“You hope that experience, good or bad — he’s had some ups and downs — contributes to him growing and seeing things more,” Burke said.
Armstrong has played 11 snaps in coverage and allowed the only pass thrown in his coverage area to be caught, for nine yards.
Burke said Armstrong’s best skill is “he can run. That’s why we brought him in in the first place. He’s got speed. One thing that’s been cool with Cornell is that it’s not too big for him. I like his demeanor. He doesn’t get rattled.”
▪ Receiver Danny Amendola (knee) and center Travis Swanson (ankle) were listed as questionable and were limited in practice all week, but the Dolphins are hopeful both will play. Guard/center Jake Brendel, who re-aggravated a July calf injury, was ruled out.