Miami Dolphins’ T.J. McDonald could benefit from ‘stress-free’ training camp

Dolphins safety T.J. McDonald celebrates after a stop on Dion Lewis of the Patriots. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

(Note: This continues a series in Daily Dolphin spotlighting members of the team individually. In addition to reliving highlights and lowlights of the past season for each, we’ll provide analysis and criticism, plus take a look at how each player fits — or doesn’t fit — into the team’s plans for 2018.)

S T.J. McDonald

Height, weight: 6-2, 223

College: USC

Age: 27

Experience: Sixth season, second with Dolphins

Acquired: As unrestricted free agent in March 2017

Contract: Received a four-year, $24.1 million contract last season

Pro Football Focus rank: 59th out of 120

In 2017

Stats: 8 games played, 45 tackles, one interception

Notable moments: Made nine tackles in Dolphins debut, vs. Carolina in November. … Intercepted Trevor Siemian on first possession of Denver game. … Made seven tackles in home victory over New England.

Straight talk: Even though he made an instant impact when inserted into the lineup midway through last season, T.J. McDonald walked away in January thinking about what could have been.

“Not being able to help my team in the first eight weeks definitely was hard — the hardest part of the year for me,” said McDonald, who served an eight-game NFL suspension stemming from a DUI arrest. “Then coming back, being in a new scheme, hopping in the middle of something — it was just a little different.”

He wondered what it would have been like if he had a full season next to Reshad Jones, another hard-hitting safety who’s a Pro Bowl talent. He was already looking forward to the 2018 season, when he could “hit the ground running.”

Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Matt Burke said he’d consider using McDonald more often in a hybrid safety/linebacker role. The wrinkle, Burke pointed out, is if you slide McDonald into the box, someone has to be back there filling the spot he vacated.

Then, two things happened that further muddied the picture.

First, the Dolphins drafted Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick in the first round, fueling speculation he could be that someone filling the vacant spot and triggering a move of McDonald to linebacker.

Finally, when coach Adam Gase was asked about all this, he flat-out said, “T.J. is playing safety. If we have to make adjustments somewhere. … He’s not moving to linebacker. He’s going to be a safety and then we’re going to figure out a way to get our best 11 players on the field.”

So a year ago, the Dolphins and McDonald were in getting-to-know-you mode and today, there’s still an element of that. What’s clear is that Jones, McDonald and Fitzpatrick are among the 11 best defensive players, so one option is a three-safety formation, which also would eliminate guesswork as to who will be the third linebacker next to Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan.

“There may be some three-safety packages where they’re all on the field together,” Burke said. “There may be times where T.J. and Reshad are a better grouping for us or Minkah and Reshad are a better grouping for us or something else. I don’t know. I think our challenge, again, as a coaching staff, is to get the best feel for how to utilize those guys best — what each of their strengths are — so when we get into a game-plan situation, ‘Hey, this guy is better at doing this,’ or, ‘We can put all these guys and maybe use this guy this way,’ or that sort of thing.”

McDonald contributed in 2017 but measured his words in assessing his play.

“Eh,” he said. “My first game back, that was the most comfortable I was, just because I was playing off of adrenaline and so excited to come back.”

But McDonald, who made nine tackles in that game against the Panthers, hedged when asked if he felt uncomfortable as the season wore on.

“I was playing more stress-free” early, he said.

Prospects for 2018

Since the Dolphins have two divisional games in the first month of the season, they might be exceptionally vanilla in August to avoid tipping their hand, but a storyline to watch in camp will be how this three-headed safety rotation plays out.

McDonald said he arrived at Dolphins camp feeling he had to prove himself and had only eight games in which to do it. After the season, he said he was looking forward to starting fresh.

“Just having a clear head,” he said.


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Miami Dolphins rookie defensive backs working to ditch nicknames

Cornell “Big Country” Armstrong would like to get back to his regular name as soon as he can. (AP)

DAVIE — Now that hazing has been legislated out of football, teams are finding creative, relatively harmless ways to make rookies prove themselves to their veteran co-workers.

For the Dolphins’ defensive backs, this means they’ve been saddled with corny nicknames until they earn the right to be called what they want. Miami’s corners and safeties all have cool names like G5 (Reshad Jones), X (Xavien Howard) and Tank (Cordrea Tankersley), so this is an ongoing thing in that corner of the locker room.

Sixth-round pick Cornell Armstrong, a cornerback, goes by Big Country — a moniker worn not-so-prestigiously by former Vancouver Grizzlies center Bryant Reeves — because position coach Tony Oden thinks the way he talks is a little backwoods.

“He detected the accent,” Armstrong said. “They tell me I talk too fast. Sometimes I’ve gotta slow down. If you hear me say, ‘Bassf’ldmississippi,’ they don’t understand. I have to break it down as ‘Bass-field.’”

Big Country isn’t the worst thing to be called, but Armstrong usually goes by ‘C-Nell’ and would like to get that back as soon as possible.

First-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick, from Alabama, is called Tide. Regarding the undrafted cornerbacks, Jalen Davis is Surfer and Johnathan Alston is Snoop.

“I’m not sure if they don’t like them or anything, but I know Jalen Davis, his nickname is Surfer because he’s from San Diego and Coach says he likes to surf, I guess,” Armstrong said. “Johnathan Alston, we call him Snoop because of his dreads and long hair. What do we call Mink? We really just call him Tide.”

The rookies are heading into their final offseason practice Thursday as the Dolphins wrap up Organized Team Activities. They will return for training camp a week ahead of the veterans next month for one more crash course before things get decidedly more serious.

[Which undrafted rookies have impressed Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke so far?]

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[Marjory Stoneman Douglas football team visits Dolphins practice]

Check out The Palm Beach Post‘s Miami Dolphins page on Facebook.

Dolphins coach Adam Gase pleased with 2018 NFL Draft class so far

Dolphins rookie tight end Mike Gesicki and his fellow newcomers have approached their jobs the right way. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — It’ll take months, if not a year or two, for the Dolphins to find out exactly what they have in this year’s NFL Draft class. But the rookies’ early work has been impressive.

First-rounder Minkah Fitzpatrick has gotten great reviews all around and is competing for playing time at safety with Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald. Second-round tight end Mike Gesicki is in line for a starting job, and there could be a few other major contributors from the later-round selections.

Collectively, though, this group has done well since joining the team in late April. Over the last two months, including rookie minicamp and offseason practices, coach Adam Gase has seen players with the right mentality to make it as pros.

“That whole group, I like the way those guys are working,” he said. “I see them studying, especially here. It seems like they’re not quick to run over to the hotel. Guys are sticking around, whether it’s working out or staying in their meeting rooms and working on their own or working with somebody else or grabbing a veteran.

“I like the way this group is working and they’re trying to — They are playing a little bit of catch up. They’re lacking experience in this league. I think these guys are really pushing themselves to try to make sure mentally, especially this offseason, to catch up as much as they possibly can before training camp.”

The rookies have one week left of Organized Team Activities, which ends with four practices next week. Then they have about a month to get ready for training camp. That’s when the depth chart starts to take shape.

Of last year’s seven draft picks, only cornerback Cordrea Tankersley established himself as a full-time starter, and that took three games into the regular season. Raekwon McMillan also would have been the starting linebacker had he not torn his ACL in the preseason.

Beyond that, first-round pick Charles Harris started two games and fifth-rounder Davon Godchaux started five. Sixth-round defensive tackle Vincent Taylor appeared in 13 games off the bench.

Offensive guard Isaac Asiata (fifth round) was inactive most of the year because coaches said he wasn’t ready to play at the NFL level, and receiver Isaiah Ford (seventh) spent the season on Injured Reserve.

[Which undrafted rookies have impressed Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke so far?]

[Who wins a race between Albert Wilson, Jakeem Grant and Kenny Stills?]

[Marjory Stoneman Douglas football team visits Dolphins practice]

Check out The Palm Beach Post‘s Miami Dolphins page on Facebook.

Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill: Minkah Fitzpatrick is ‘what you want to see’

Ryan Tannehill likes Minkah Fitzpatrick’s play so far. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — Everyone in the Dolphins organization has been impressed by rookie safety Minkah Fitzpatrick over his first month or so as a pro. His teammates in the secondary and Miami’s coaching staff have said he’s as good as advertised coming out of Alabama, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill has taken note as well.

Fitzpatrick had two interceptions in the first two weeks of offseason practices, though he didn’t say which quarterback(s) he got, and the offense is well aware of his presence.

“He’s been good; He’s flying around at practice,” Tannehill said. “You see his mentality and his aggression. He plays what he sees and he plays fast, and that’s what you want to see out of a DB. You might make a mistake here or there but if you’re out there playing fast, you’re going to make some big plays and really change games for us.

“I’m excited with what I see so far. I can’t really speak on details because I don’t know how he’s being coached or what positions he’s being put in, but from what I’m seeing, he’s playing fast and he’s working hard, so I like what I see.”

Regardless of it still being three months before the regular season begins, the early reviews on Fitzpatrick have been encouraging. At 21 years old, he’s picking up the defense quickly and demonstrating great work ethic.

That’s a strong start toward securing a spot in Miami’s crowded secondary. Two-time Pro Bowler Reshad Jones is a virtual lock at one safety spot, leaving Fitzpatrick to compete mainly against T.J. McDonald for snaps.

“We keep giving him more and he keeps taking it,” defensive coordinator Matt Burke said. “We are moving him around to some different spots and trying to play him in some different places to get a feel for sort of what his best fit is or what the best way to utilize him is, and he’s responded well.”

[Which undrafted rookies have impressed Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke so far?]

[Who wins a race between Albert Wilson, Jakeem Grant and Kenny Stills?]

[Marjory Stoneman Douglas football team visits Dolphins practice]

Check out The Palm Beach Post‘s Miami Dolphins page on Facebook.

Dolphins rookie Minkah Fitzpatrick moves past big contract, ready for ‘great legacy’

Minkah Fitzpatrick will get $16.4 million over the next four seasons. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — For a kid who grew up in a blue-collar home with his father being a mechanic and his mom working in a warehouse, signing a $16.4 million NFL contract must have been surreal.

Dolphins first-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick finalized his rookie deal last week and is set to make the aforementioned amount of money over the next four years. That’d be a landmark in anybody’s life, and he knows that, but he was relatively low-key when discussing what it meant to him.

“It was a good feeling,” he said. “Any time you see your hard work paying off, it’s a blessing. Me and my family, we worked real hard to be in this position, but you’ve just got to keep telling yourself, ‘This is not the end goal.’ It is a goal but it’s not the end goal.

“I didn’t come here just to be a first-round pick. I wanted to be a great player here and establish a great legacy here, so you’ve just got to keep on pushing it. Again, it’s an honor, it’s a blessing that we got that money and all of that stuff, but we’ve just got to keep on moving forward.”

Fitzpatrick said he didn’t really celebrate the financial windfall. Instead, he “just signed the contract and that was it.”

The deal was delayed because Miami was waiting until additional salary cap space freed up June 1, and now most of its draft picks are under contract. Tight end Mike Gesicki, a second-rounder from Penn State, is the only one who hasn’t signed.

One reason Fitzpatrick might not have allowed his head to start spinning over his rookie money is that he’s in the middle of trying to secure a role. He’s battling veterans Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald for playing time, and he’s off to a great start in that effort.

The Dolphins are three weeks into offseason practices, which end after four Organized Team Activity sessions next week. Then they break for about a month before reconvening for training camp.

[Kenny Stills is exactly what the NFL needs, so why is it alienating him?]

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Check out The Palm Beach Post‘s Miami Dolphins page on Facebook.

What Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke said Wednesday

Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke is working with a lot of moving parts this offseason. (Andres Leiva/The Post)

DAVIE — Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke should be pretty happy this week. His side of the ball has been winning a lot of the 11-on-11 drills during offseason practices, and it looks like he’s got more than enough talent throughout the depth chart.

But Burke has a lot on his plate over the next few months. He’s trying to turn around a defense that wasn’t particularly great at anything last year. Miami wants to be a defense that swarms the quarterback up front and presents danger on the back end with a trio of good safeties. There’s also the issue of linebacker, which has been a problem area for the Dolphins for years.

Here are some notes from Burke’s press conference after practice today:

— He thinks first-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick has been as good as the Dolphins expected. “He’s probably about as advertised,” Burke said. “He’s really sharp. He’s thirsty for knowledge and for more, and we’re trying to overload him a little bit. We keep giving him more and he keeps taking it. He spends a lot of extra time in the building on his own, working out, studying film.”

— Burke reiterated that nothing is set in stone at this point in the year. He’s not going to decide position battles until it gets closer to the season. That’s especially true at cornerback and linebacker.

— He said that current free agent safety Eric Reid was never a consideration for the Dolphins this offseason because their roster was already well put together at the position. The Dolphins met with Kenny Vaccaro as well and did not sign him.

— Defensive end Cameron Wake, at age 36, has shown little sign of decline during Organized Team Activities and minicamp. “It always just amazes me, at his age,” Burke said. “I hate to keep saying that. He probably gets mad when I keep bringing up his age and telling him he’s old and stuff. I actually talked about it in a defensive meeting this morning… I mean for how long he’s been here, the joy never goes out of it for him. He’s out smiling, loves practice, loves getting better, and competing.”

— Ever the adventurer, Burke is headed to Bora Bora for some diving and a six-day backpacking trip in Olympic National Park in Washington during the upcoming break. Dolphins coach Adam Gase will not be able to get him on the phone. “Probably not,” he said. “Whether I have cell phone service or not, he probably won’t be able to reach me.”

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[Marjory Stoneman Douglas football team visits Dolphins practice]

Check out The Palm Beach Post‘s Miami Dolphins page on Facebook.

Miami Dolphins’ Minkah Fitzpatrick gets ‘extra motivation’ knowing Stephen Ross may need convincing

Miami Dolphins defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick during offseason workouts at Nova Southeastern University. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

DAVIE — The word following the NFL Draft was that if there was one thing the Dolphins could be assured of, it’s that first-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick wouldn’t need anyone lighting a fire under him. His work ethic at Alabama was held in that much esteem.

But the fire was lit anyway.

Shortly after the draft, a report in The Boston Globe indicated that when the Dolphins were on the clock with the No. 11 overall pick, one person in Miami’s draft room needed a lot of convincing that Fitzpatrick, a defensive back, was the right way to go.

That person was owner Stephen Ross.

“Yes, I heard about it,” Fitzpatrick said after practice Tuesday. “He’s a businessman, so he’s going to see the business side of everything. It’s a little extra motivation just to prove that I am the worthy pick, that I deserve to be here.”

Fitzpatrick said he has not spoken with Ross since the draft. That includes Tuesday, when Ross watched the workout from the sidelines at Nova Southeastern University.

Because the Dolphins have Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald at safety, Fitzpatrick’s selection wasn’t based on need, but raw talent. Fitzpatrick said he has worked at strong safety, free safety and nickel back, with his reps split evenly among the three. The Dolphins have not yet experimented with all three on the field, which we’re expected to see in the fall.

Regardless of where the versatile rookie lines up, he’s already making an impression.

“He’s done a good job,” coach Adam Gase said. “He’s got his hands on a lot of balls. He’s had a few interceptions. He seems to be all over the place. He has a great motor, a great work ethic. It’s great seeing him progress since that first day. You can tell he takes this very serious and this is what he does. He puts everything he has into this.”

If Gase sounds like Fitzpatrick’s college coach, Nick Saban, there’s a good reason. Gase said nothing that Fitzpatrick has done has been a surprise. Rather, it’s validation for what Saban told the Dolphins before they drafted him.

“Any time Coach Saban has the amount of praise that he had for him … ,” Gase said. “You don’t hear him say a lot of the things that he said.”

Last week, Fitzpatrick signed his four-year, $16.4 million rookie contract, including $10 million guaranteed. It was cause for celebration for a lot of players. Not Fitzpatrick.

“Not really,” he said. “I just signed the contract and that was it.”

He plans to buy a house — “I’m going to need somewhere to live” — but otherwise, his focus isn’t on his wallet.

“It is a goal but it’s not the end goal,” Fitzpatrick said. “I said it earlier in the media, I didn’t come here just to be a first-round pick. I wanted to be a great player here and establish a great legacy here. So you’ve just got to keep on pushing it.”

Pushing, as in making interceptions and breaking up passes whenever he gets the chance.

“Have I been counting them? Yes. I think every DB counts them,” he said. “I’ve got two picks and a couple of pass breakups. That’s it, really. I’m just doing my job.”

That might not sound bad for most rookies. Fitzpatrick sounds determined to not be like most rookies.

“Once I get more and more comfortable, it’s just going to keep going up and up,” he said.

Maybe then, he won’t have to have that talk with Stephen Ross.

Maybe then, Ross will have all the evidence he needs.

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[‘New tradition’ needed following White House controversy with Eagles?]

[What Adam Gase said after Tuesday’s practice]

[Kenny Stills is exactly what the NFL needs, so why is it alienating him?]

[Who wins a race between Albert Wilson, Jakeem Grant and Kenny Stills?]

[Marjory Stoneman Douglas football team visits Dolphins practice]

Check out The Palm Beach Post‘s Miami Dolphins page on Facebook.

‘New tradition’ needed? Miami Dolphins say White House visits can be a thrill

President Donald Trump honors the national championship team, the Alabama Crimson Tide, during a White House ceremony in April. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

DAVIE — When the Alabama Crimson Tide visited the White House after winning last season’s national championship, Minkah Fitzpatrick was nowhere to be seen.



Fitzpatrick was on a pre-draft visit with the 49ers in San Francisco.

“It was scheduled in,” Fitzpatrick, a defensive back drafted by the Dolphins in the first round, said Tuesday. “Not lined up very well.”

If not for the visit, it appears likely Fitzpatrick would have been mingling with teammates, coach Nick Saban and President Donald Trump. Fitzpatrick had been to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. once before, after his freshman season, and enjoyed meeting Barack Obama.

“It was cool,” Fitzpatrick said.

“We flew up to the White House, got a little tour of one of the wings of the White House. We sat in his library, checked it out, looked at some books and Obama came into this one room. I shook hands with him. He talked with us for a little bit, took some pictures and then there was like a little ceremony at the end. Overall, it was a great experience.”

But it’s one the Philadelphia Eagles won’t have, now that Trump canceled the traditional visit and some Eagles players indicated they weren’t going to attend anyway. It has caused a national flap over what for years had largely been a traditional, non-partisan celebration of American sports.

“I would love to do that because it’s the result of you winning a championship,” Dolphins cornerback Tony Lippett said.

“But the rest of it, I don’t really know,” Lippett added, referring to the political controversy between Trump and NFL players who kneel during the anthem to protest social injustice. Ironically, none of the Eagles was kneeling during the anthem last season.

Dolphins defensive end Charles Harris said he doubts many athletes consider White House visits motivation during a season.

“I’m trying to win each and every day,” Harris said. “So that’s not a part of anybody’s mental (approach). That’s something that comes with it. After you get to the highest platform and you win, then that’s on your mind.

“But when you’re on the bottom, you aren’t thinking about that.”

We’ll start to learn soon enough if the nixed Eagles trip is an aberration. The Stanley Cup Final is nearing a conclusion, so imagine if the Capitals close out the series with Las Vegas but aren’t invited for a crosstown celebration ceremony.

Imagine if this tradition is ending, period.

“I don’t know,” Lippett said. “Guess you’d have to find a new tradition, I don’t know.”

[What Adam Gase said after Tuesday’s practice]

[Kenny Stills is exactly what the NFL needs, so why is it alienating him?]

[Who wins a race between Albert Wilson, Jakeem Grant and Kenny Stills?]

[Marjory Stoneman Douglas football team visits Dolphins practice]

Check out The Palm Beach Post‘s Miami Dolphins page on Facebook.

What Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase said at minicamp Tuesday

Dolphins coach Adam Gase is running his third offseason program with the team. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — The Dolphins are into mandatory minicamp, and the best news for coach Adam Gase is that the entire roster showed up for this morning’s practice.

Here are some other updates from Gase:

— He was unhappy with the offense, which struggled today. “It was not one of our better practices,” he said. The Dolphins put some new things in schematically, and the new stuff didn’t look smooth. “The defense practiced well today,” he said. “We didn’t execute.”

— Gase has been pleased with backup quarterback David Fales during his work in Organized Team Activities and minicamp. “He keeps getting better,” he said. “He makes a lot of plays in practice.”

— First-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick has been very active in practices and gotten his hands on a lot of passes.

— Defensive end Charles Harris is one of four or five players at the position, and Gase says the plan continues to be that the Dolphins will cycle guys through in order to keep them fresh.

— Receiver Jakeem Grant has been running the most go routes in offseason practices, per Gase.

— Receiver Leonte Carroo is out until training camp, and cornerback Jordan Lucas is out day-to-day. Gase did not specify their injuries.

[Kenny Stills is exactly what the NFL needs, so why is it alienating him?]

[Who wins a race between Albert Wilson, Jakeem Grant and Kenny Stills?]

[Marjory Stoneman Douglas football team visits Dolphins practice]

Check out The Palm Beach Post‘s Miami Dolphins page on Facebook.

2018 NFL Draft: Miami Dolphins sign S Minkah Fitzpatrick, three other rookies

Minkah Fitzpatrick is officially under contract. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

Not that there was ever any uncertainty about this, but the Dolphins announced today they signed first-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick to his rookie contract.

Fitzpatrick, a safety who went No. 11 overall, will get a four-year deal worth $16.4 million with $10 million guaranteed, according to NFL Network, ensuring the Dolphins will have his rights through at least the 2021 season. First-round picks are slotted into a salary range based on where they are selected.

The team also signed sixth-round cornerback Cornell Armstrong, sixth-round linebacker Quentin Poling and seventh-round kicker Jason Sanders.

Fitzpatrick and Miami’s other draft picks should be signed quickly now that it’s June 1 and roughly $17 million in cap space that would have gone to Ndamukong Suh officially becomes freed up for the Dolphins.

By designating Suh as a post-June-1 cut, the Dolphins were able to spread his $22.2 dead cap hit over this year and next rather than absorb it all at once. Suh was set to count $26.1 against this season’s cap if he stayed, but his dead money number will be $9.1 million. Next year it will be $13.1 million.

Draft picks practice whether they are signed or not because the collective bargaining agreement provides for them to be paid each day they’re working in the meantime. Teams also sign a participation agreement with players as a guarantee that even if they get hurt, they will still negotiate the same contract the player would’ve gotten if healthy.

Fitpatrick, from Alabama, has been practicing with the Dolphins during Organized Team Activities the past two weeks along with the rest of the rookies.

[Dolphins try a new approach with defensive line under Kris Kocurek]

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[Marjory Stoneman Douglas football team visits Dolphins practice]

Check out The Palm Beach Post‘s Miami Dolphins page on Facebook.