Acquired via trade with the Miami Dolphins on Monday night, the defensive back is an immediate replacement for starting free safety Sean Davis, who was placed on injured reserve after Sunday’s loss with a shoulder injury. And that’s where he’ll start -- and stay -- Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.
The ultimate value of Fitzpatrick, though, is in his ability to be so much more than a defensive center fielder.
“I think a vital part of my game is my versatility,” the former first-rounder said. “I’m able to move around, whether it be free (safety), nickel, corner. Playing in the box, covering guys, stuff like that. I think that’s an important part of my game, and that’s a reason why they wanted me here, to move me around.”
The key for the Steelers will be balancing his usage and utilizing him in positions that make sense with his skill set. Though he was productive with two interceptions and 92 tackles in 18 games with Miami, Fitzpatrick was unhappy because the Dolphins moved him around frequently and used him to plug holes he felt he wasn’t built to fill.
He lined up at nine different positions with the Dolphins. He was most often used at right cornerback (230 snaps), free safety (222 snaps), right slot cornerback (187 snaps) and left slot cornerback (180). But he also lined up at outside and inside linebacker and played box safety -- a spot he felt wasn’t a good fit.
"I'm not 215 pounds, 220 pounds,” Fitzpatrick said while he was still in Miami. “So playing in the box isn't best suited for me, but that's what (Dolphins coach Brian Flores) is asking me to do."
That doesn’t mean that he isn’t comfortable playing strong safety with his new team from time to time, but Fitzpatrick also makes sense as the Steelers' slot corner -- a position currently occupied by Mike Hilton, another versatile defensive back.
A personnel man for one team recently told ESPN that Fitzpatrick is “the ideal slot corner who can cover and blitz off the edge.” He also praised Fitzpatrick’s intelligence, something that’s been on display as he quickly works to learn a new playbook.
Hilton, an Ole Miss product, played against Fitzpatrick when Fitzpatrick was at Alabama and remembers him well. He recalled the 55-yard pick-six against Texas A&M in 2015, one of Fitzpatrick’s two defensive scores that day.
That’s the kind of playmaking ability Hilton knows they’re getting in Fitzpatrick.
“I know what type of versatile playmaker he is,” Hilton said. “He can play in the box. He can play in the post and cause an interception.
“Adding that type of player to this defense, that’s big for us. With the guys we’ve got up front, they’re able to get pressure, and the guys that we’re starting to build and get together on the back end, we're really starting to come together as a defense.”
The Steelers’ defense is off to a slow start in the first two games of the season, allowing 445 yards per game to rank 29th in total defense. They’ve also allowed 320 passing yards per game, good for fourth-worst in the NFL. But bringing in Fitzpatrick immediately bolsters the unit.
“I think he can add just experience, bring some playmaking ability that he’s capable of doing,” corner Steve Nelson said. “I think he’ll be able to be that missing piece that we’ve been needing.”
Though Fitzpatrick is primed to eventually be a major player in the defense, defensive coordinator Keith Butler doesn’t want to overwhelm the new acquisition in his first week with the Steelers. The versatility will come with time, but to be as effective as possible, Fitzpatrick needs to learn the playbook for one specific position.
“That type of player, you want to play him,” Butler said. “You don’t want him to stand on the sidelines and watch with you. That’s not going to do you any good. We’ve got to make sure we’re careful in terms of what we’re doing with him and give him a chance to be successful.”