Tomlin: Davis injury prompted Fitzpatrick trade


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Sean Davis nurses a shoulder injury sustained against the Seahawks during Week 2 of the 2019 NFL season. – MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Necessity is the mother of invention. It apparently also causes teams to act out of character.

The Steelers did just that late Monday night when they traded three draft picks, including their first-round selection in the 2020 draft, to acquire defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick from the Dolphins. The Steelers also received a fourth-round draft pick in 2020 and a seventh-round selection in 2021, while also giving the Dolphins a fifth-round pick in 2020 and sixth-round pick in 2021.

The Steelers had shown some interest in Fitzpatrick when the Dolphins began shopping him last week following his request to be traded. But when starting free safety Sean Davis suffered a torn labrum in the second half of the team's 28-26 loss Sunday to the Seahawks, it necessitated a more drastic move.

The Steelers have not gone into a draft without a first-round pick since 1967, when Dan Rooney, after decades of watching the team trade away first-round selections for aging veteran players, decided the team would no longer do so.

"I think Sean's injury was a significant component of it, certainly," Mike Tomlin admitted Tuesday.

Davis was placed on injured reserve Tuesday, and while Tomlin didn't close the door on him returning at some point this season -- NFL teams are permitted to bring two players back from injured reserve after they spend eight weeks on that list -- the Steelers are moving forward with Fitzpatrick as their starting free safety.

That will start this Sunday when the Steelers (0-2) travel to San Francisco (2-0) to play the 49ers. Fitzpatrick was en route to Pittsburgh on Tuesday and is expected to not only start but play a lot against the 49ers.

"He's a multi-talented player, and at some point we're going to utilize those talents as an asset to us," Tomlin said. "But we're going to get him started on a stable ground this week. That means playing one position."

There is a concern Fitzpatrick might not pick up the entire defense in just three days of practice time, but Tomlin is comfortable with the former first-round draft pick being capable of doing so.

Tomlin and GM Kevin Colbert went to both pro days at Alabama last year prior to the draft -- where Fitzpatrick went 11th overall -- and also met with him at the NFL Scouting Combine. The Steelers had a top-5 draft grade on Fitzpatrick and believe he's sharp enough to learn the basics of the defense enough to be capable of stepping in and playing a lot of snaps.

"We'll make that determination as we get closer to game time," Tomlin said. "But based on what I know about him, researching him in the draft and looking at the myriad of things he did while in Miami, I'm not concerned about this guy being able to play and play good football for us in a significant number of snaps this weekend."

Fitzpatrick, 22, played nickel corner, outside cornerback, both safety spots and dime linebacker for the Dolphins in his short time there, showing he's capable of being a significant chess piece. But he balked at being used like that this season for the Dolphins, specifically at playing strong safety and being used as the dime linebacker. The led to him asking for his trade out of Miami, which is 0-2 and has been outscored 102-10 in its first two games.

Fitzpatrick has been a playmaker for the Dolphins since stepping onto the field last season. He recorded 80 tackles, two interceptions -- one of which was returned for a touchdown -- and nine passes defended as a rookie, then had 11 tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery for the Dolphins thus far this season.

He'll now be paired with second-year strong safety Terrell Edmunds on the back end of the Steelers defense. Edmunds was the 28th pick in the draft last season.

"It was no secret that we were in the market for a safety (last year). We did our due diligence on all of those guys," Tomlin said. "Obviously, he was a guy I went to Tuscaloosa (Ala.) twice last year to see. When you get into these possibilities, there was a sense of readiness, a sense of knowing among us about his capabilities, character, his football abilities and his abilities in what we do. All of those boxes had been checked prior to the move.

"He's still very much a young guy. We were excited about the potential of getting one of the top-notch safeties in that draft. In a short time, we have a tandem from that class. That's pretty exciting to having an opportunity to play together as soon as this weekend. Big picture, they'll play together systematically."

This could spell the end of Davis' time in Pittsburgh. A second-round pick in 2016, he initially played slot corner for the first part of his rookie season before being moved to strong safety. He started the 2017 season at that spot and tied for the team lead with three interceptions. But with the addition of Edmunds in 2018, Davis was moved to free safety.

Davis is entering the final year of his rookie contract and has struggled with injuries this season, missing a large portion of training camp with a dislocated finger that also caused a laceration on his hand. Then, he suffered a sprained ankle in the team's third preseason game that forced him to miss the regular season opener at New England. He returned last week, but suffered the shoulder injury while attempting to tackle 229-pound wide receiver D.K. Metcalf.

Davis has made 41 starts during that time, including nine as a rookie, registering 244 tackles (187 solo), five interceptions, a forced fumble and 20 passes defended.

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