Mike Tomlin excited about adding Minkah Fitzpatrick to Steelers secondary
In the run-up to the 2018 NFL Draft, Mike Tomlin was so enticed by defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick that he made two scouting trips to Alabama to study the potential first-round pick.
Tomlin did so with a sense of realism. The Pittsburgh Steelers held the No. 28 pick and Fitzpatrick surely would be off the board by the time commissioner Roger Goodell announced their selection.
“We knew it was somewhat of a pipe dream,” Tomlin said.
No longer. Faced with a long-term injury to safety Sean Davis, the Steelers finalized a trade Tuesday in which they sent their first-round pick in the 2020 draft to Miami in exchange for Fitzpatrick, who went to the Dolphins with the No. 11 overall selection about 18 months ago. The deal also involves an exchange of lower-round draft picks in the 2020-21 drafts.
Fitzpatrick, 22, was disenfranchised with the Dolphins and his role on the 0-2 team. In Miami, he was asked to play five positions, from slot cornerback to outside corner, to free and strong safety and even hybrid linebacker.
Fitzpatrick requested a trade after the Dolphins lost their season opener, 59-10, to Baltimore. It was granted less than 48 hours after the Dolphins dropped their second game, 43-0, to New England.
Although Tomlin is intrigued by Fitzpatrick’s versatility, he will “anchor” his new addition at free safety for the foreseeable future. Fitzpatrick will start there Sunday when the 0-2 Steelers travel to San Francisco to face the 2-0 49ers.
“We’ll get him quickly up to speed,” Tomlin said. “He’s on the ground, so we’ve got almost a full week to prepare him. He’s a sharp guy. It’s evident when you watch Dolphins tape and the myriad things they asked him to do.”
As a rookie, Fitzpatrick excelled as a slot corner, ranking first in completion percentage allowed (51.3%) and passer rating allowed (53.4%) among the top 34 slot corners in Pro Football Focus’ rankings. He also took snaps at outside corner and both safety positions.
Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton will continue to take reps at slot corner for the Steelers, and Tomlin didn’t discount the possibility of Fitzpatrick moving there later in the season.
“At some point, (his versatility) is going to be an asset for us,” Tomlin said, “but for the short term, we’re not going to ask him to move around a great deal.”
With Davis being placed on injured reserve, he will be out for at least eight weeks. He already had missed the season-opening 33-3 loss at New England with an ankle contusion and hurt his shoulder in the second half Sunday against Seattle.
In both instances, the Steelers turned to former Alliance of American Football player Kameron Kelly at free safety.
“Sean’s injury was significant in making the move that we did,” Tomlin said.
Which is why the Steelers will be without a first-round draft pick next season for the first time since 1967. They have Fitzpatrick under control for the 2020-21 seasons and can exercise a fifth-year option for 2022. Davis will be a free agent after this season.
Tomlin said the Steelers had no qualms about forfeiting such a high pick for a player of Fitzpatrick’s stature.
“It’s our overall level of comfort about the player, first and foremost,” Tomlin said. “It’s not secret that we were in the market for a safety when he came out. We did our due diligence on all of those guys. When you get into these circumstances, there was a sense of readiness, a sense of knowing among us about his capabilities, his character, his football abilities, his abilities to fit within what we do. All of those boxes had been checked prior to the (2018) draft.”
When Fitzpatrick left Alabama after his junior season, he was considered the top safety in the draft class, with former NFL Draft guru Mike Mayock listing Fitzpatrick as his No. 5 overall pick. Fitzpatrick measured 6-foot, 204 pounds at the NFL Combine where he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds.
“We thought that he could be an impact player in this league,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said in a statement.
Fitzpatrick was long gone by the time the Steelers got to the podium in the first round. Searching to replace veteran Mike Mitchell, they landed Terrell Edmunds with their top pick.
“We were excited about the potential of getting one of the top-notch safeties in that draft,” Tomlin said, “and a short period later, we have a tandem from that class.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .