Barry Jackson

Here’s what the Dolphins are doing with past two 1st rounders, Wilkins and Fitzpatrick

Minkah Fitzpatrick is being asked to learn multiple roles in this Dolphins defense.
Minkah Fitzpatrick is being asked to learn multiple roles in this Dolphins defense. dsantiago@miamiherald.com

Chatter on the Dolphins’ past two first-round picks:

▪ When training camp started last week, rookie first-round pick Christian Wilkins immediately was inserted with the starters and has remained there, taking most of the first-team defensive tackle work with Davon Godchaux.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Miami’s 2018 first-round choice, assuredly is one of the Dolphins’ 11 best defensive players, but whether he’s a full-time starter with this team remains less clear five days into camp.

When the Dolphins have opened in a nickel package in practice, Fitzpatrick often has been on the field, lining up in the slot.

But when their first team defense features only four defensive backs, it hasn’t been unusual to see Fitzpatrick on the bench, with Eric Rowe at one cornerback spot (opposite Xavien Howard) and Bobby McCain at the free safety spot, opposite Reshad Jones or T.J. McDonald. Rowe has taken the vast majority of first-team boundary cornerback snaps opposite Howard.

Which all leads to the question: Should Fitzpatrick be playing every down?

“That’s up to Minkah,” Coach Brian Flores said Tuesday. “I think if he shows us that he can play on every down, play in different spots, tackle, play the deep part of the field and cover, the guy is deserving of playing every snap. That’s up to him.”

Fitzpatrick is the consummate team player - willing to play multiple roles on this defense that values his versatility - but was candid when asked if playing every down is important to him.

“It is,” he said. “I think anybody that plays this game is going to want to be out there all of the time, especially when you put as much time as I do in, and I think it’s important to be out there. It’s important to have the best players out there, and that’s what camp is for – to decide who the best players are.”

Last season, Fitzpatrick was on the field for 944 snaps, second-most on the team behind Kiko Alonso. He was the Dolphins’ slot cornerback 40 percent of the time, the boundary corner 30 percent, free safety 17 percent and strong safety 3 percent.

These defensive coaches want him to know how to play both safety positions, boundary cornerback, slot cornerback and even some outside linebacker, where he lined up a bit Tuesday.

Miami so far is wisely using him a lot in the slot, where he led the league last season in completion percentage against (51.3) and passer rating against (49.7), per Pro Football Focus.

“I’m comfortable there,” he said. “I have a lot of experience there. I think that’s what gives me a good edge, just going out there and competing. I just love doing that. You’re going against some of the best guys in the slot, some of the fastest, quickest guys in the slot, and you get to do multiple things. You get to play the run, you get to cover, you get to rush, so I love it out there.”

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The question is whether Fitzpatrick should play on the boundary - instead of Rowe - when Miami uses four defensive backs. Last season, Fitzpatrick had an 80.5 passer rating against on the boundary. Rowe’s career passer rating against is 85.2 - slightly worse - and before going on injured reserve on Halloween, he was targeted 13 times last season, allowing 8 completions for 106 yards and two touchdowns, equating to a bloated 126.9 rating in his passer area.

And he permitted a poor 106 passer rating in his coverage area in 2017, after posting a great passer rating against in 2016 (61.9). Rowe has been uneven throughout summer practices, very good at times and burned at others.

Fitzpatrick said he has no idea how much boundary cornerback he will play this season.

“I had a lot of experience outside in the boundary last year when some people went down, and I think I could provide a lot out there,” he said.

For now, “I’m all over the place. I’ve been doing different looks at safety, whether it be up on the line, a linebacker back in the half, covering the half, covering receivers in the slot.”

And in the meantime, he’s heeding one critical piece of advice from coaches: “Coaches have been telling me playing fast isn’t always the best thing, especially when you’re moving around a lot. It’s more of being able to process everything, relax and be able to play off your instincts. When you’re playing fast, you speed things up, you think too much, and you start tripping over your own feet. When you slow things down, break things down, know the defense, are comfortable, you honestly play faster than if you’re trying to fly all over the place.”

The view here: Fitzpatrick needs to play every down or nearly every down. The sooner than that happens, the better.

▪ Wilkins, working at defensive tackle when Miami plays a 4-3 scheme, has looked good in his first week of camp, pushing his way into the backfield to disrupt red zone plays on multiple occasions.

“He’s been good,” Dolphins guard/tackle Jesse Davis said. “He’s giving me a tough time. Strong guy. Big guy. Hard to move.”

So is Wilkins pleased how he has played? “No, I’m not because I hold myself to a high standard and I’m never satisfied. I’ve got a long way to go before I’m where I want to be. Going against these guys, until I completely dominate everything, I’m never going to be satisfied.”

He looks lean and athletic for his size at 311 pounds and is in line (and well equipped) to play defensive end in a 3-4 when Miami uses that formation. “My beach body is going to be year-round around here,” he cracked.

Teammates have been impressed. “He’s not making any rookie mistakes,” defensive end Tank Carradine said. “When we’re in third down, he’s doing all of the play calling such as like we’ve got to stunt or something. He’s definitely [NFL] ready.”

If Wilkins plays well in preseason, he would be in good position to hold off Akeem Spence and Vincent Taylor to start.

But he said “my goal is not to be the starter. My goal is to be the best that I can be. If being a starter is a result of being the best I can be, then so be it. That’s how I make my goals and how I attack things.”

Here’s my Tuesday piece with nuggets about several Dolphins lineup changes Tuesday and reaction to the offensive line coaching change.

Here’s my Tuesday piece with news on the Panthers hiring a new TV analyst.

Here’s my Tuesday six-pack of UM notes with lots of personnel items.

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