Is he a corner? Is he a safety? Does it really matter?
These are the questions we’ve heard a lot in the past about highly rated college prospects coming out of the secondary. A very recent one that comes to mind is Jalen Ramsey. It was unclear exactly what the Florida State man was as he entered the 2016 Draft, and he’s become an elite defender on an emerging Jaguars team.
The same queries have been swirling around the draft about Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick. But after figuring out what he is, the tough question will follow. Where will he end up?
RAF Big Board Ranking: #2
When you’re as talented as Fitzpatrick clearly is during actual game play, the combine takes on less importance. Fitzpatrick didn’t dominate the combine, but he put in a solid enough showing to keep his stock high. He also made the decision not to participate in the three-cone drill or either of the shuttle exercises. His 40-yard dash was the best event for him, confirming the quickness he showed in Tuscaloosa.
Height: 6’ 1”
Weight: 201 lbs
40-yard Dash: 4.46 seconds
Bench Press: 14 reps
Vertical Jump: 33 inches
Broad Jump: 121 inches
Fitzpatrick has a built-in strength before he even steps on the field with his versatility. I touched on it earlier, but he really is comfortable lining up at cornerback or at safety. Put him on the outside one on one against the opponent’s best wide receiver. Stick him in the slot on a quick receiver over the middle and he’s comfortable, or line him up back at safety and he can thrive. It’s going to take some time to figure out where he’s best suited to play at the NFL level, but at this point you can slot him all over the field.
Once he’s on the field in his chosen position, there’s very little not to like about Fitzpatrick’s game. He’s stout in coverage and can stay with the quickest of receivers stride for stride going down the field. He’s got an excellent football brain to read the receiver he’s working against, and also the eyes of the quarterback to anticipate the throw. He has shutdown potential in him against the elite receivers in the NFL.
Another attribute of Fitzpatrick’s that can’t go unnoticed; he’s a ballhawk. He was a three-year starter at Alabama, and in that time he ended up with nine interceptions and two forced fumbles, returning four of those 11 turnovers back to the end zone for touchdowns.
In Alabama’s 2016 game at Texas A&M, Fitzpatrick had two pick-sixes, including a fourth-quarter one to put the game on ice. He had another big one in the 2016 SEC Championship Game against Florida to give Alabama a lead they would never relinquish. Fitzpatrick simply has the trait in his game to completely change the game when he gets the ball in his hands, something he did regularly at Alabama.
As if everything he’s capable of producing in pass defense wasn’t enough, Fitzpatrick has a touch of run stopping in his DNA. He uses that same awareness and athleticism in pass coverage every once in a while to get around the edge and stymie running backs. He can even exploit the gaps in the offensive line and use his speed to drive at the quarterback, totaling five sacks in his career with the Crimson Tide.
You can even use him on special teams. In Alabama’s matchup against Georgia in his freshman year, Fitzpatrick blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown. He was a regular on the field when the Tide were the ones punting, getting down the field with his blazing speed and making tackles to flip field position.
It’s tough to find a weakness in the guy our own draft expert Joe Hulbert rated the best defensive player in this entire draft class, but there are a few things Fitzpatrick can clean up before he starts playing on Sundays.
Size wise, he’s nothing special. He’s near the middle of the pack in height in terms of cornerbacks, and maybe a little bit above average in weight, but certainly not enough to physically push a receiver out of a game in that regard.
To that tune, his strength also leaves a little bit on the table. His bench pressing at the combine was a little bit underwhelming if anything. There might be some concerns about his strength with wrapping up ball carriers and bringing them to the ground against bigger NFL backs and receivers than the ones he was lined up against in college.
On the whole he can play like a little bit of a loose cannon sometimes. Him being a little bit undersized can cause him to get handsy with receivers, one example being this pass interference penalty in the 2016 National Championship Game. That could get him into some trouble at the next level with pass interference penalties being enforced at the spot of the foul rather than just being 15 yard penalties in college. He’s going to have to be a little bit more careful in coverage.
Let’s not sugarcoat this.
There’s a legitimate argument to be made for Fitzpatrick being the most talented player in this entire draft. If he’s not, he’s certainly close. Minkah is going to be a week one starter for whatever team he ends up with, and a fun one to watch throughout his rookie season and beyond.
Draft Prediction: If there’s a run of quarterbacks in the top five of the draft, he might take a minor tumble. But he shouldn’t go much further than that. If the Browns decide to hold on to their #4 draft pick, I could see them drafting him right there. If they trade that pick, he could go anywhere in the next few selections of Denver, Indianapolis, Tampa Bay, and Chicago. I’d be stunned if he fell any further than that.