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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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.”

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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.

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Ryan Tannehill’s trash talk keeps coming; Miami Dolphins love it

Ryan Tannehill: Sharp throws, sharp words. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — The return of Ryan Tannehill has not happened quietly.

The Dolphins have been saying throughout the offseason that he’s got the ability to turn around a 6-10 team, and Tannehill’s been vocal in his own way. During the first two weeks of Organized Team Activities, players on both sides of the ball have noticed him getting feisty with the defense.

“Ryan does a great job of not only relating to the guys on the offense, talking to the guys on the offense, but getting over and talking a little trash to the guys on the defense,” receiver Kenny Stills said today. “Not feeling that he’s uncomfortable going over there and talk some trash and get things going if we need that spark in practice.”

Dolphins safety T.J. McDonald pointed out this week that Tannehill’s been bold about jawing back at the defense and said that’s elevated the competition at practice.

While Tannehill has some history of running his mouth at practice, it’s not something players mentioned at all in 2016. It’s also something that was almost certainly missing last year, when Tannehill was out and the Dolphins relied on Jay Cutler and Matt Moore.

Tannehill had arguably his best season last time he played. In his first year with coach Adam Gase, he posted career highs in passer rating (93.5), completion percentage (67.1) and yards per attempt (7.7). Gase has backed him at every turn, leaving no doubt that the Dolphins will sink or swim with him as their quarterback, and Stills sees a player who is much more secure in his role than he was under Joe Philbin in 2015.

“Players are always going to grow and get better over time,” Stills said. “He’s been the same guy since I showed up here, as far as work ethic, attitude, how he carries himself when he comes to work. At the same time, he’s getting more comfortable with who he is and the player he is and knowing how hard he’s worked and the fact that we all respect him.

“I think when he got hurt a couple years ago, he was playing the best football that he’s ever played. We just hope we continue to work together so we get back to where he was and get back to where we were as a team.”

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After rough 2017 season, Dolphins secondary aims to be among NFL’s best

How good can Reshad Jones’ crew be in 2018? (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — Few teams were easier to pass against than the Dolphins last year, and their defensive backs are insistent on changing that.

Looking around that corner of the locker room, there seems like there should be enough talent to turn things around. Miami has three promising options at safety, plus a host of good cornerbacks bent on becoming great.

The problem is that most of those players were here last year when the Dolphins finished bottom-10 in the NFL in opponent passer rating (94.8) and completion percentage (64.2). The total damage, 225 yards per game, was 16th in the league, but that number likely would’ve been worse had the team not spent most of the year trailing.

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“I think we gave up too many big plays last year,” safety T.J. McDonald said. “That’s the biggest thing you don’t want to do is let the ball get over your head. Going into this season, that’s a big emphasis for us.

“We’re just working. We want to be the best that we can be. We want to be the best in the league. We’re putting the time in right now.”
It didn’t help the secondary that the defensive line was unable to put much pressure on opposing quarterbacks and finished 26th in the league with 30 sacks. The defensive backs’ jobs will become significantly easier if Miami’s redesign up front, mainly the addition of Robert Quinn.

In coverage, the Dolphins have McDonald and Reshad Jones returning as the starting safeties along with first-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick. They also have Xavien Howard angling to become a true No. 1 cornerback, plus Cordrea Tankersley, Tony Lippett and Bobby McCain.

They’re guided by new leadership, too, with the arrival of defensive backs coach Tony Oden and assistant Renaldo Hill.

McDonald has already seen strides from the defense in the first two weeks of Organized Team Activities.

“We’re just hungry,” he said. “Our camaraderie as a group is better, I feel like. I feel like we’re growing week by week. We’re working harder than we did last year. All the guys can feel the upping the momentum through practice. We’re setting the standard right now. That can only pay off in the future.”

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Despite Dolphins’ logjam at safety, T.J. McDonald likes his chances

T.J. McDonald is confident he’ll “play a lot of ball” this season. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — The Dolphins think they’re loaded with talent in the secondary. If that’s true, that’s the first step. The next one is figure out how to use all those assets.

The back end of the defense looked like it’d fit together straightforwardly until the surprise draft pick of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick at No. 10 overall a month ago. Miami believes it caught a break when he slipped that far and couldn’t resist taking someone of his caliber, but the team already had two highly paid, established safeties in Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald.

The coaches have been vague about how they think those pieces will fit together, and the Dolphins don’t appear to have sorted that out over the first week-plus of Organized Team Activities.

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“We’ve got some good players out there,” McDonald said. “We’ll get the best players on the field and go from there.

“I think it’s a good mix, but it’s still early. We haven’t really done too much. One thing we are doing is just making sure we all know both safety positions and as we continue to progress through OTAs, more packages and more things will come in and we’ll grow as a group from there.”

With Jones’ massive contract and the investment of such a high selection in Fitzpatrick, McDonald appears to be in the most precarious position. That’s purely speculation at this point, though. The team hasn’t communicated anything along those lines to McDonald or said anything in the past month that indicated he’s a trade candidate.

The other theory is that he might move to linebacker, which coach Adam Gase said isn’t in the plans. He left the door open for anything, though, by saying, “You keep working guys at the positions that you think fit them best and then when things start sorting themselves out and you have to make an adjustment, you make it then.”

McDonald, 27, came to the Dolphins as a free agent a year ago after four promising seasons with the Rams. He signed a cheap, one-year deal with the team knowing he’d be on NFL suspension the first eight games, but the organization was so impressed by what he did in his first few months on the practice field that it extended him for $24 million over four years.

Is that a regret now? The combination of him and Jones at the back end during the second half of last season wasn’t a perfect match, and regardless of the team’s “best talent available” line on Fitzpatrick, they didn’t pick him that high to keep him on the bench. He’s spoken with the coaching staff about its plans for him, but it was a fairly standard offseason meeting, not a dramatic confrontation.

“Anything we talk about, we usually keep in house, but it’s nothing like that,” McDonald said. “Nothing crazy. I control what I can control and everything else will take care of itself. I’m gonna play a lot of ball. Reshad’s played a lot of ball. Minkah’s a great player. I think that we can all make it work. However it works out, it’ll take care of itself.”

In eight games, McDonald had 45 tackles, three pass breakups and an interception.

Jones, 30, played all 16 games and reestablished himself as one of the Dolphins’ most impactful defenders. He had three fumble recoveries (two of which went for touchdowns), two interceptions, three pass breakups and 122 tackles as he earned his second Pro Bowl appearance.

McDonald has built his reputation on being a big hitter more so than as a first-rate coverage safety, and at 6-foot-2, 223 pounds his body suits that type of role. However, one thing working in the Dolphins’ favor as they get their defense in place is his willingness to do whatever’s asked.

“I’ve been in the box, whether you’re in the box or strong side or weak side,” he said. “You’ve gotta be able to be versatile and do it all. I can do a lot of things. I can play deep, play in the box, whatever the case may be.”

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Dolphins defense jaws at Ryan Tannehill, but ‘he’ll come back at you’

Ryan Tannehill is louder on the field than on camera. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill maintains as nondescript of a public personality as possible, but he’s feisty behind the scenes.

As Tannehill gets back into the offense after missing the last year-plus with a knee injury, he and the defense have had some good battles during Organized Team Activities.

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“It’s going good, man,” safety T.J. McDonald said after practice today. “It’s still early. We just finished our fourth practice, but the first couple days I felt like the defense got the upper hand and they did a great job today. We’ve been competing together.

“He went through OTAs last year. It’s about the same thing, but it’s still early. He’s a great quarterback.”

Sometimes, when the defense starts building momentum, players like McDonald let Tannehill hear it. And he doesn’t hesitate to fire back.

“He’s a competitor, too,” McDonald said. “Sometimes he’ll say a little something to somebody. You can talk a little trash to the offense, and a lot of guys will turn around and walk back to the huddle, but he’ll come back at you.”

That shouldn’t be a huge surprise. The biggest “controversy” Tannehill’s ever endured with the Dolphins was in 2015 when a report surfaced that he was ripping practice squad players on the field.

Tannehill has not played since December 2016 thanks to ongoing knee problems, and the team relied on Jay Cutler and Matt Moore in his place last year. Throughout the organization, the Dolphins have pointed to his return as their biggest cause for optimism coming off a 6-10 season.

That goes beyond Tannehill’s play on the field, which was some of his best work at the time he got injured. His presence has made a big impact as well.

“He looks real good right now,” McDonald said. “His leadership is also great on and off the field. We’re excited to have him back so we can keep growing as a team. His leadership is what we missed the most, just having him in the locker room and being able to take control of that offense.”

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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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What Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke said Saturday

Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke. (Andres Leiva/The Post)

DAVIE — Highlights of Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke’s chat with the media on Saturday:

  • On replacing Ndamukong Suh: “Organizations have to make decisions on certain things. … That’s part of the business.” Says he’s excited about DLs anyway. Expectation is to roll in four DTs.
  • On S Minkah Fitzpatrick: “That’s going to be up to him, how much he absorbs and takes on.” Says he seems to be a big-picture thinker and student of the game. “My initial impression is he has the ability to absorb a lot.”
  • On LB Jerome Baker, third-round pick: Speed was first thing that stood out.
  • On LB Raekwon McMillan: “If it works out the way we think it can and hope it does, it’s a huge acquisition for us.” Said watching tape of his practices last summer, coaches were reminded of how he looked ready to take that step as a starter. Adds that McMillan has “worked his ass off.”
  • On the vision for the three safeties (Fitzpatrick, Reshad Jones, T.J. McDonald): “It’s always good to have different weapons. We’re going to put the best 11 players on the field, maybe week to week, play to play.”
  • Burke confirms there may be some three-safety alignments this year.
  • With three safeties: “It’s all about matchups. Whether it’s on tight ends or backs, or having a bigger body.” Maybe Fitzpatrick can be a first-down nickel back. “The more players you get that are multi-dimensional, that have different skillsets,” the more you can do to stop offenses.
  • On DE Robert Quinn: When possibility of trading for him was brought up, Burke thought it was a joke at first. Burke says he has been high on Quinn even when he was coming out of college. “I’m real excited to see what he can do for us.”

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Adam Gase: Miami Dolphins aren’t moving safety T.J. McDonald to linebacker

Dolphins safety T.J. McDonald won’t be wearing a linebacker number in the 50s this season. (Andres Leiva/The Post)

DAVIE — Safety T.J. McDonald is going to remain safety T.J. McDonald.

Dolphins coach Adam Gase swatted down speculation that McDonald could be moved to linebacker Thursday, a move that had been speculated to make way for first-round draft pick Minkah Fitzpatrick to team with Reshad Jones at safety.

Such a move, in theory, would have not only enabled the Dolphins to get three of their best defensive players on the field, it also could have plugged a hole at linebacker.

“T.J. is playing safety,” Gase said in his first comments since the draft. “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.”

How?

One way would be to go with three safeties, which some teams including the Patriots have done.

Another might be more subtle. McDonald and Jones are aggressive tacklers who thrive assisting in run support, so even potential hybrid duties for either player likely wouldn’t produce glaring differences to the naked eye compared to the way they played last season.

And the harder it is to figure out what McDonald, Jones and Fitzpatrick are up to before any given snap, the more likely they are to cause hesitation or confusion for quarterbacks.

In such a pass-happy league, the Dolphins often line up with only two linebackers anyway. If things go according to plan, those two would be Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan.

“How it all plays out, I can’t tell you right now, because what you think right now and what it ends up being in the first week of the season can change quickly,” Gase said. “We learned that last year on both sides of the ball. You keep working guys at the positions that you think fit them best and then when things start sorting themselves out and you have to make an adjustment, you make it then.”

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