How Minkah Fitzpatrick trade affected Dolphins, Steelers in different ways

Who has won the Fitzpatrick trade so far? (1:38)

Field Yates, Damien Woody and Rob Ninkovich debate whether Miami or Pittsburgh has gotten the better end of the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade so far. (1:38)

Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and the team that he asked to trade him will be reunited Monday night (8:20 p.m. ET, ESPN). He has assured anyone who inquired that the self-described "business decision" that got him shipped from the Miami Dolphins to the Pittsburgh Steelers won't affect his play.

Seven weeks ago, Fitzpatrick requested a trade from Miami after months of frustration with the way he was being used on the field.

His wish was granted on Sept. 16.

Pittsburgh made the uncharacteristic all-in move to give up a first-round pick in exchange for Fitzpatrick. Here's how both teams have fared since:

Dolphins: Fractured relationships and future considerations

Parting with Fitzpatrick was never part of the Dolphins' plan. The 2018 first-round pick was supposed to be a core piece of Miami's total rebuild.

Fitzpatrick was viewed by some within the Dolphins organization as the next Honey Badger (Tyrann Mathieu) -- an intelligent, hardworking, versatile player with Pro Bowl potential who could be the center of a defense for years to come.

As the Dolphins prepared to face the Steelers in Week 8, coach Brian Flores had little to say about what changed so dramatically between Fitzpatrick and the Dolphins to go from a successful, promising rookie season to a rocky, seemingly inevitable divorce months later. There is nothing tangible for Flores to point to other than future compensation.

"The deal was the deal. That happened, but it's in the past," Flores said. "They're using him well, and he's been productive. I have a lot of respect for Minkah, as do a lot of our players; but I have a lot of respect for that entire team. He's a good piece for them."

The Fitzpatrick trade didn't make the 2019 Dolphins better. This move was always about 2020 and beyond. The final grade on the transaction will be issued when the player Miami drafts with that pick succeeds or fails.

ESPN's Football Power Index projects the Dolphins pick acquired from Pittsburgh to be No. 16 overall with a 24.2% chance to become a top-10 pick. The Dolphins' own selection is currently projected at No. 1 overall and their pick acquired from Houston via the Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills trade is projected as a No. 26 pick.

The Dolphins decided early that future draft picks and salary-cap space would be the two most important assets of their rebuild. Now they have plenty of both, including three 2019 first-round picks and a projected $100 million-plus in cap space.

"We've positioned ourselves where we think we can do anything, or get whatever player we feel that will help us as soon as possible," said Dolphins general manager Chris Grier, who might be the most important decision-maker in the 2020 draft.

If Miami can land a good offensive tackle or edge rusher with Pittsburgh's pick, in addition to the quarterback it's likely to select with its own pick, then it might be able to claim victory in this trade simply because those two players will hold a better positional value than one safety.

Getting a first-round pick was Miami's way of maximizing a bad situation. Fitzpatrick requested a trade shortly after the Dolphins' 59-10 Week 1 loss to the Ravens, the worst loss and performance of his football career. He played three or four different positions, and said he felt like the team didn't have a good plan for him to succeed.

That Ravens game was the final straw, but Fitzpatrick's issues started much earlier in 2019, when he often mentioned to reporters and people close to him that he didn't feel comfortable playing primarily in the box as a 195-pound defensive back. Still, the trade request was shocking.

"You got to have some nuts to do that," Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard said. "That's a NBA-style move."

Fitzpatrick felt the Dolphins' desire to have him cover all of their defense's holes impeded his ability to develop as an NFL player, a source told ESPN. Now in Pittsburgh, Fitzpatrick is primarily playing free safety -- a position he enjoys and thrives in.

"I am comfortable on the field. [They] just allowed me to play fast and do what I do," Fitzpatrick said this week about his fit on the Steelers' defense. "That is the thing I like about here -- we run what we run, and we run it well. We don't try to do too much, don't try to change it up week to week."

Fitzpatrick's comment seemed to be a subtle (or not so subtle) commentary on Miami's defense, which changes with each game plan.

Grier, Flores and Dolphins owner Stephen Ross met with Fitzpatrick the week of the trade request and tried to convince him to stay.

"We had multiple conversations with [Minkah], saying we wanted him here and viewed him as a core piece," Grier said. "The kid just felt it was time for him to move, and we told him what the value was ... We said, hey, if we get the value that we deem was worth moving him, we would do it."

The Dolphins received several offers for Fitzpatrick, but they deemed Pittsburgh's to be the strongest because the team was 0-2 at the time and had lost quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the season. At the time, they thought was the pick would likely be at worst in the teens.

With every Steelers loss, the Dolphins' selection gets better. For the first time this season, Miami -- against Pittsburgh -- can help its draft class with a win.

Steelers: Risky move with immediate reward

From Miami, Fitzpatrick watched the biggest NFL news of the day unfold on the television in front of him.

Already off to an 0-2 start, the Steelers saw their fortunes take an even sharper turn on Sept. 16 with the news that Roethlisberger's season was over because of an elbow injury.

It wasn't just the 2019 season that was in doubt; Roethlisberger's noncontact injury could signal the beginning of a major organizational restructuring starting with the man who had been its face for more than a decade.

The team had its 2018 third-round draft pick, quarterback Mason Rudolph, in the building, but if Roethlisberger was done, then the Steelers' 2020 first-round pick could be even more valuable. A pick that began the season as a likely mid-to-late first-round selection was rapidly ascending thanks to a winless start and an unproven quarterback set to take the reins.

But that wasn't the thought process inside the Steelers' facility.

To those in Pittsburgh, the season was not lost, and Roethlisberger's time in Pittsburgh wouldn't end with him walking off the field clutching his elbow at halftime of a Week 2 loss.

That's why the Steelers appeared on a list given to Fitzpatrick by Grier earlier that day of "six or seven" teams who made offers to the Dolphins.

And, that's why hours after making the announcement about Roethlisberger, the team sent the strongest message about its confidence in the backup quarterback by acquiring Fitzpatrick for its 2020 first-round pick.

"You're not used to the Steelers doing that, but when you're doing it for great players, trading up for [Devin] Bush, seeing what he does and then giving away those first-round picks for Minkah, for those type of players, it is what it is," cornerback Joe Haden said. "Those, you don't really know what to expect with the picks.

"Those dudes, though, Minkah's amazing. Bush also. We got some good ones."

The Steelers evaluated Fitzpatrick in the 2018 NFL draft, and now he was available. Plus, the team had an immediate hole to fill after a shoulder injury sent safety Sean Davis to injured reserve. In the team's view, making an uncharacteristically splashy move was worth it to secure a defensive star in the making who could plug an immediate hole and become a cornerstone of a talented, young defense.


Ninkovich: Steelers will control tempo against Dolphins

Victor Cruz and Rob Ninkovich both like the Steelers to stay in the win column and take care of business against the Dolphins.

"I know that we are not major players in that [trade] market but when we are, it is because we probably coveted that particular player in the draft," coach Mike Tomlin said. "We had a level of comfort about who they are as football men, but also who they are as people and had a certain level of comfort with that."

Securing Fitzpatrick doesn't just signal the organization's confidence in Rudolph and in the eventual return of Roethlisberger, it also has everything to do with locking in a talented player at a bargain rate for the foreseeable future.

An AFC executive whose team offered a second-round pick for Fitzpatrick praised the Steelers for the move.

"The key to these moves is the contract," the executive said. "Minkah is a good deep safety and good slot who is super cheap the next few years. Plus, they didn't pay his signing bonus."

Miami signed Fitzpatrick to a four-year, $16.4 million contract in 2018, and because of rookie contract structures, the Dolphins have already paid the bulk of that with his $10 million signing bonus. Over the next three seasons, the Steelers owe Fitzpatrick an average salary of $1.9 million, and as a first-round pick, Fitzpatrick has a fifth-year option the team could choose to pick up. With the option, the safety could be under team control through the 2022 season.

"That move was very unlike the Steelers, but he's a good player," another AFC executive told ESPN. "He's sort of what they need back there. He's a really smart, physical guy who can make plays. He's probably worth a first-round pick."

If making the midseason move has been difficult, Fitzpatrick hasn't shown any negative side effects on game day. His acquisition paid off six days after the trade when he secured an interception and a forced fumble against the San Francisco 49ers. The Steelers lost the game, but Fitzpatrick has continued to be a big part of a defensive surge over the past month. Since Fitzpatrick's first start in Week 3, the Steelers are third in the NFL with a plus-7 turnover margin, grabbing eight interceptions and picking up five fumbles lost by opponents.

"The reason, obviously, that we wanted to get him here, [was] because we thought he was a different kind of player," Steelers secondary coach Teryl Austin said. "He's really good, but he also makes guys around him better. He's got a calming influence. He's not a super yeller, but everybody knows what's going on and what he's going to do. He's fit in seamlessly with the group."

When he first arrived in Pittsburgh, Fitzpatrick primarily played free safety. That move immediately alleviated the frustration he felt in Miami, where he was asked to play in the box more frequently than he wanted. While Fitzpatrick worked to learn the defensive concepts, the Steelers kept him anchored to one position.

But now that he has been in the Steelers' system for a little more than a month, Fitzpatrick's duties are expected to expand.

"We're trying to see what we can do with him," Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. "We're ever-changing, and we have to be ever-changing if we're going to get better. We can't be running the same stuff over and over again. He understands that. ...

"We've got to have guys that can make those decisions for us out on the field."

Fitzpatrick is one of those guys. He has picked up a complex defense quickly and has a seemingly limitless ceiling. The Steelers saw that when they evaluated him in 2018, and it's why they were willing to give up a piece of their future to get him now.

"Getting him any time is good, but I'm glad we got him when we got him," Austin said. "The bottom line is, coming out of last year's draft, the year before, when he came out, he was the top safety on many, many boards. I know I felt that way about him. And he's done nothing to disappoint."

ESPN's Jeremy Fowler contributed to this report.