The trade of Minkah Fitzpatrick to the Steelers in September for a first-round pick was panned by some in the NFL at the time, but looks better for Pittsburgh by the week. Fitzpatrick has become a game-changer for them, helping to elevate the entire defense, and is flourishing in his ball-hawking role.
Fitzpatrick, the 11th overall pick in the 2018 draft, had clashed with Dolphins rookie coach Brian Flores over how he was being deployed, according to sources, who said the safety bristled at being used in the role Patrick Chung held for Flores when he was an assistant to Bill Belichick in New England. Fitzpatrick was being used closer to the line of scrimmage and had some linebacker-like responsibilities but longed for more freedom to chase the ball in the passing game.
Miami was originally offering veteran safety Reshad Jones to the Steelers at the start of the season, sources said, with Pittsburgh making it clear it was in the market for help to its secondary, an area of concern for several years. The Steelers strongly preferred Fitzpatrick, who the team believed could play a "centerfielder" type role for them and cover lots of ground disrupting the passing game, but were told initially that Fitzpatrick was unlikely to be dealt. The Dolphins later asserted that Fitzpatrick would only be moved if a first-round pick was included and league sources said multiple teams were willing to meet that price, but Miami believed Pittsburgh's pick would end up being the highest.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin immediately assured Fitzpatrick he and the player were in lockstep about how he should be deployed, and with his presence on the back end the Steelers have been more willing to get aggressive on the blitz. "It's changed the entire defense, really," one team source said. Fitzpatrick is tied for third in the NFL with five takeaways, including a game-changing 96-yard touchdown return last week against the Colts, and is second in the NFL with four interceptions.
With Fitzpatrick in the fold, the Steelers defense has become one of the best in the NFL at producing turnovers, and currently stands second in the league with 22 (behind only New England), while soaring to fifth in the NFL in sacks. Pittsburgh has climbed back in the playoff chase at 4-4 despite losing star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the season, riding the defense and run game to do so, and the acquisition of Fitzpatrick may end up going down as the most impactful trade of the entire 2019 season, with the draft pick Miami gets in return ending up perhaps as low as the 20s.