Matt Burke sinking teeth into ways Minkah Fitzpatrick can sharpen Miami Dolphins’ D

Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke talks about the newcomers he’ll incorporate into his unit in 2018.

DAVIE — Noted world traveler and thrill seeker Matt Burke hasn’t settled on this summer’s excursion yet, but he did recently take a swim with hammerhead sharks. Much to Adam Gase’s relief, Burke, the Dolphins’ defensive coordinator, reported that his swimming buddies are more gentle than you’d think — if you were inclined to equate “hammerhead” with “gentle” in the first place.

That Burke returned with all limbs intact, though, might not be the first thing he mentions if you ask what has gone swimmingly for him lately.

At this time of year, a lot of what football coaches can do surrounds talking, plotting and dreaming about what the new “pieces” afforded to them can offer come fall.

And Burke has more new toys than he had a right to expect.

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Burke thought someone was joking when he was awoken from his spring slumber by a call from Dolphins HQ asking what he thought of Rams defensive end Robert Quinn, a guy with three consecutive double-digit sack seasons on his resume who turns 28 next week. At first he gave a “yeah, fine.” When he realized it wasn’t a joke, he watched film, then basically said it was much better than fine with him.

Then, the offensively challenged Dolphins determined that the best available player with the No. 11 overall pick was a defensive guy, Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Toss in linebacker Raekwon McMillan, last year’s second-round pick who’s returning after missing his entire rookie season with a knee injury.

That makes three solid reasons Burke, a Dartmouth guy, has plenty of noodling to do about the options at his disposal to vastly improve a defense that ranked 16th overall and 29th in scoring in his first year as a coordinator.

“It’s always good to have different weapons for me,” Burke said. “ … We’re going to put this best 11 players on the field — maybe play to play, week to week, game to game — in terms of our matchups.”

In other words, Burke wants the defense to play the same kind of matchup chess match that Gase has wanted to do on offense but often has not had the means to pull it off. It’s already evident that three of Burke’s best players are safeties Fitzpatrick, Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald. Rather than try to divide three players into two slots, Burke confirmed that he may (read: will) use some three-safety alignments this year. Why wouldn’t he?

“To me, it’s all about matchups,” Burke said. “So if we feel that those body types or those players, whether it’s Minkah, T.J., Reshad at our safety spot are better matchups, whether it’s on tight ends or backs or whether it’s having a bigger body as a nickel on. … I just think the more players you get, again, that are multi-dimensional and have different skillsets, the more you can play around with how you’re utilizing them on the field on defense.”

Compared to what lies ahead, rookie camp is little more than a get-to-know you, here’s-your-playbook type thing, but even that has been enough for Burke to recognize Fitzpatrick isn’t your everyday rookie. When Fitzpatrick addressed the media Friday, he was almost incredulous when asked about all the extra work he famously puts in: Doesn’t everybody?, he all but asked.

Incredulous may have been an apt word to describe Burke on draft night. He had to know there was a great chance the Dolphins would go for offense in Round 1, especially if the right quarterback fell to them. Instead, Fitzpatrick, whom Nick Saban used in a variety of roles at Alabama, was the one who fell.

Of Fitzpatrick’s contributions as a rookie, Burke said, “That’s going to be up to him and how much he absorbs and takes on. Again, it’s been 48 hours or whatever it is (he has been in Davie). In the limited interaction I’ve had with him, he’s shown the ability to be sort of a big-picture thinker and he understands football and he’s a student of the game from that sense. So, I think he, again, my initial impression is that he’s got the ability to absorb a lot.”

Absorbing is about all McMillan could do after blowing out a knee on the opening kickoff of the first preseason game. Adding him is almost like getting an extra second-round pick to the Dolphins.

“If it works out the way we think it can and hope it does, that’s a huge acquisition for us,” Burke said. After watching tape of McMillan’s practices last summer, coaches were reminded that he looked ready to take that step as a starter before the injury. Burke added that McMillan has “worked his ass off” to get back to that state.

The biggest loss on defense, naturally, was Ndamukong Suh, but Burke thinks he’s covered there, too. He plans to roll in four tackles, with three jobs a virtual lock: Jordan Phillips, Davon Godchaux and Vincent Taylor.

All Burke has to do now is stay in one piece.

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