Each day leading up to the 2018 NFL draft, I’ll break down one of my top 50 prospects. In some cases, we had to make tough omissions because of injuries, poor pre-draft workouts or incomplete information. For more complete scouting reports on all the prospects, check out the Pro Football Weekly 2018 Draft Guide, which is available for order now.
13. Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick
6-foot, 204 pounds
Key stats: Although Fitzpatrick’s INT total fell from six in 2016 to one in 2017, he set a Bama record with four pick-sixes in his career.
The skinny: Elite prep product found a way to crack Bama’s defense as a true freshman, starting 10-of-14 games played in the Crimson Tide’s “star” (nickel) position on defense, making 45 tackles (three for loss), two sacks, two interceptions (both returned for TDs) and 11 passes defended in earning Freshman All-America and Freshman all-SEC mention for the national champs.
In 2016, Fitzpatrick started the season as the “star” and moved to safety following Eddie Jackson’s season-ending injury. Fitzpatrick led the Tide with six interceptions, running back two for scores and tallying 186 INT return yards. He was named a first-team All-America that season, also making 66 tackles (five for losses) and seven passes defended.
Named team captain as a junior in 2017, when he joined Charles Woodson and Patrick Peterson as the only college players to win the Bednarik and Thorpe Awards in the same season. Fitzpatrick tallied 60 tackles (eight for loss for minus-31 yards), 1.5 sacks, eight pass breakups, one interception, one forced fumble and one blocked field goal.
Fitzpatrick declared early for the 2018 NFL draft. He performed all the athletic testing drills at the NFL scouting combine except for the shuttle drills and the 3-cone, which he chose not to perform and opted not to do any of those at either of Bama’s two pro days.
Upside: Ideal size for cornerback or safety. Strong blend of size, speed, quickness and play strength to be a multifaceted playmaker in the mold of the modern defensive back. His 40-yard dash time was more than acceptable, and his 10- and 20-yard splits were very good.
Thrived in Bama’s “Money” position — a sixth DB who can crowd the line as a blitzer, shadow athletic quarterbacks, cover the slot or turn and run with receivers, backs or tight ends. Times and disguises his blitzes very well — has a knack for slipping past blockers and through tight cracks in the protection.
Dynamic with the ball in his hands — four career TDs on nine interceptions. Smart and intense. Tough and physical. Vocal leader who can be seen calling out plays based on formation and tendencies. Gets his teammates lined up — great communicator. Coaches praised his on- and off-field demeanor. Noted by staff as film junkie and gym rat. Eats and drinks football. Willing special-teamer who takes pride in his fourth-down duties.
Doesn’t get beat deep much at all. Keeps things in front of him well. Outstanding instincts — watch here as he smells the swing pass against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl and closes fast on the ball to make a very good open-field tackle (the latter of which isn’t always his strength, see below):
Performed fluidly in DB drills at the combine — gave teams more comfort to projecting him to outside corner if that’s a role they envision for him.
Downside: Athletic testing numbers mostly good but none were special. Shockingly low vertical jump number (33 inches) suggests a lack of explosion. Opted not to perform shuttles or 3-cone drill at either of Bama’s two pro days, preventing NFL teams from having his full athletic profile. Combine that with OK height, below-average arm length and he could struggle to contend with 50-50 balls against taller targets he’s asked to cover.
Wasn’t asked to play deep safety or outside corner much — so what’s his ideal role in the NFL? Lacks the size to be a true box defender and might not have the elite quickness or change-of-direction skill to handle slot duty full time. His versatility in college is unquestioned, but it does pose a bit of a challenge for NFL teams projecting his best value going forward.
Playmaking took a big dip last season — one interception and one forced fumble. Had chances to make more interceptions but couldn’t haul them in and finish the play. Tight ends can post him up and outmuscle him. Will whiff on some open-field tackle attempts. Also can come too high and recklessly as a blitzer, take poor angles and fly by the ball. Not always adept at shaking loose blockers downfield.
Plays off and will give space, leaving too much room for quick-breaking routes underneath. Doesn’t carry receivers long enough in zone coverage, such as here in the national title game vs. Georgia where Fitzpatrick (just to the right of the hasmkark) keeps his eyes planted on the QB and doesn’t sense the crossing route from the receiver who slipped behind him:
Has a concussion history that must be considered. Plays bigger than his size and could have a shortened career because of it.
Best-suited destination: Some teams we spoke with believe Fitzpatrick can play outside corner with enough time spent there. Others envision him in a hybrid role the way the Arizona Cardinals use Budda Baker or the Los Angeles Rams deploy Lamarcus Joyner. So in theory, Fitzpatrick is a fit for just about every scheme and system: he can play man and zone, off and press; he could be a nickel or outside corner; deep or box safety, or a combination of all of them.
That kind of versatility is attractive in that he’s bound only by the lack of creativity of the defensive coordinator, so he’s a fit with every single NFL team. But will every team value this jack of all trades — even in this subpackage-heavy era — as much as they would a one-position defender? That remains to be seen, but someone will take him high.
Quotable: “Call him whatever [position] you want, he can do everything. I always look at the guys that Nick [Saban] and Kirby [Smart] when he was there … how did they use the players they had on defense? Did they hide their deficiencies or highlight their skills and versatility? In [Fitzpatrick’s] case, I’d definitely say the latter.” — AFC national scout
Player comp: Malcolm Jenkins, a college corner who transitioned to safety, or Devin McCourty, who made Pro Bowls at corner and safety
Expected draft range: Eighth to 16th overall