Although it is seemingly becoming more frequent, it’s still not every day that blue-chip players are made available for trade in the NFL. That a second-year former 11th-overall safety out of Alabama was suddenly on the trading block 16 games into his NFL career proved to be a serendipitous moment for Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Though it cost them their 2020 first-round pick, marking the first draft since the 1960s that they did not make a selection in the first round, the Steelers got Minkah Fitzpatrick two games into the 2019 season, and he seemed to transform their defense overnight. So how did it come about that he was suddenly made available?
To hear him tell it, it was really rooted in a difference of opinion between himself and the new coaching staff under rookie head coach Brian Flores about what he was capable of doing and what they were asking him to do. Despite showing his athleticism and acumen during his rookie season in 2018, he felt that Flores and his staff were not putting him in positions that would allow him to use his greatest assets.
The Miami Dolphins wanted to use him exclusively at strong safety and up in the box. He felt that he was best-served while primarily playing free safety as his base position, and then moving around from there. “I was working the hand-fighting drills against the tight ends and working on hitting the bags and stuff like that. That’s fine and dandy, but that wasn’t my skill set”, he told Tyler Dunne of Bleacher Report.
Fitzpatrick said that he was getting virtually no coverage work at all during the offseason, and into training camp. One day, he took it upon himself to leave his assigned drills and jump in the line with the rest of those in coverage work. “They were frustrated at me for doing that, but I was like, ‘I’m not trying to sit here and punch a bag all day’”, he said, acknowledging the fact that he went rogue.
To top it all off, once the season started, that is when the coaching staff decided to throw him back at free safety, and because of last-minute roster changes, he was suddenly working with a group of players he wasn’t even familiar with, which he credits in leading to a blowout loss.
“We had a difference of opinion in my skill set and what he thought I could do and what I thought I could do”, he summed up his final months in Miami. “It was going to get tough for me to show something to somebody they were choosing not to see”.
“They didn’t give me the opportunity to show it, even though I had film that showed it”, he went on. “The losing and all that stuff? If I was put in the right position and we’re losing—because of decisions people made upstairs—it is what it is. I can only control how I play. That didn’t affect me at all”.
They shipped him off to Pittsburgh, where he became a needed plug-and-play starting free safety, posting a first-team All-Pro stat line including five interceptions, two fumble recoveries, and two defensive touchdowns. The Steelers will look to move him around some in 2020, but understanding the qualities that makes him a great player and putting him in positions to succeed.