Minkah Fitzpatrick Is the Face of a Changing NFLMarch 6, 2018
You've seen it more and more in the NFL over the last decade—teams are putting five and six defensive backs on the field in their base formations. It's a defensive coordinator's newest salvo in the ongoing war against offenses who frequently put three and four receivers on the field in ever-expanding route packages.
If you have four defensive backs on the field against a four-receiver set, and there are two slot receivers—one a bigger possession receiver, and one a nifty speedster—and they're running complex crossing routes, your defense is likely to give up some serious passing yards.
The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles were way ahead of the game on this. They've used safety Malcolm Jenkins as a moveable chess piece for years, and they were highly successful when they went to their dime (six-DB) packages with Jenkins as a run-stopping linebacker. When you can stop the run with six defensive backs, you have the answer for just about any offense you face.
Other defensive backs such as Philly's Patrick Robinson, Denver's Chris Harris Jr., Kansas City's Kendall Fuller and Nickell Robey-Coleman of the Rams have become integral parts of their respective defenses even though they don't play a position that was standardized as a starter's role in the old-school NFL.
Into this fray comes Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick, the consensus top defensive back in the 2018 draft class. He's a top-five player in the minds of some, one who played all over Nick Saban's defense.
Fitzpatrick is the most coveted defensive back in this draft class not because he takes outside receivers away on boundary routes like Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson have done; he has that status because he does so many things so well. Fitzpatrick played just 13 snaps at outside cornerback in 2017, per Pro Football Focus, but that did not diminish his value in college. Nor will it in the NFL if Fitzpatrick goes to a team that understands how to use his unique talents.
A starter in his freshman season—something that rarely happens on a Nick Saban-coached team—Fitzpatrick started his career with the Crimson Tide by playing the "Star" position, a combination of inside corner, safety and linebacker. It's a position Jalen Ramsey played well at Florida State, and Ramsey has transitioned masterfully to outside corner in the NFL despite a relative lack of experience at the position in college. Fitzpatrick then moved to safety when injuries forced Saban's hand, and he picked off six passes there in 2016.
Fitzpatrick's move to cornerback in 2017 was more in name than in actual responsibility. He was more versatile than ever last season, and given his ability not only to excel at multiple positions, but to do so seemingly at a moment's request, he looks like the model of a modern NFL defensive back. His stats over three full seasons—110 solo tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, nine interceptions for 274 yards and four touchdowns, 24 passes defensed and two forced fumbles—speak to his do-it-all nature.
"I came in as a corner, so I was used to covering people one-on-one," Fitzpatrick said at the combine. "Halfway through camp, Coach Saban came to me asking if I wanted to play slot corner and learn how to play it. I said sure and kinda took on that role. That's really what I did. In my freshman year, a little bit of corner, then my sophomore year, I went back and forth. That's pretty much what I did.
"I feel comfortable with it because I practice it a lot. I worked on it all the time. It's a different type of position. It's a position that's kind of a combination of corner and safety. You can make calls like a safety. You can rush or fill the holes, working the gaps like a safety. Then you get to cover man-to-man or on pass downs like you need to like a corner. I like playing both corner and safety, so I think slot corner is an optimal position."
Fitzpatrick wanted to use the combine to show NFL decision-makers that he had "the hips and feet of a corner, and also the IQ and the tackling ability of a safety."
"I think that's really important to show coaches who are out there doing my drills," he added. "Then I think going into the draft, they know I can play multiple positions at a high level. Not just playing there, but also at a high level."
Well, they can see that from the game tape.
Fitzpatrick proved his value all over the field by blitzing and covering from the slot, reading the line to stop the run from a dime linebacker position, working with outside cornerbacks to cover crossing routes with great discipline and dealing with deep receivers as a hybrid safety. His understanding of spacing is a major attribute, and it shows up from several positions.
Fitzpatrick can be too aggressive when providing pressure, and there are times when he proves vulnerable to play-fakes, but a good NFL coaching staff can iron those things out. He's a better backpedal player than some of Saban's former defensive backs—Saban famously doesn't teach backpedal footwork to his players—and his intensity matched with demon speed gives him the ability to make himself a part of plays that other defensive backs aon't get to.
At the combine, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said players like Fitzpatrick have forced NFL teams to re-evaluate the kind of players they want in their defensive backfields. You can either adapt to the new ways of doing things, or stick with the old ways and miss out on some valuable players.
"The key to Minkah Fitzpatrick is what is he. I think he could play all six defensive back positions," Mayock said. "Both corners, both safeties, nickel and dime linebacker. He's the only guy I can say that about. Now, is that a good thing or a bad thing? I've had a couple of coaches say to me, 'Hey, is he a difference-maker? Is he a nickel? Where's his ball production? He had six picks two years ago, but only had one this year.'
"But I look at [his versatility] as a positive. I think he's going to go out there and run like a corner, have the size of a safety, and if you're a defensive coordinator and take him in the top 10, you've got to have a plan. What is he? Is he my safety, is he my corner, is he my nickel? Or is he a piece that I can match up week-to-week against a big wideout or a tight end. How you use him is ultimately going to determine the value of him."
San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch, who made nine Pro Bowls as a more traditional safety with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Denver Broncos from 1993 through 2007, understands just how much things have changed for defensive backs coming into the NFL now.
"It's a much more spread-out league," Lynch told Bleacher Report at the combine. "You throw the football much more, and the game is played much more in space. So, you'd better have players who can operate in space and can do a number of different things.
"Minkah Fitzpatrick is a guy who's highly thought of, and we feel the same about him. That versatility he brings is something special. We drafted a kid, Adrian Colbert, last year, and one of the things that drew us to him is that we knew he could play corner, and we knew he could play safety. That kind of flexibility is very important. We also knew at the very least that he would be an effective special teams player. So yes, versatility is always a good thing, and it's something I think everyone's looking for."
Is it to a point where defensive backs who do just one thing must do it exceedingly well not to fall off the map?
"I think that's always been the case," Lynch affirmed with a chuckle. "Versatility's always been an important part of the game. I do think that there is an element, the way the game is being played now, you have to do a number of things very well."
That can make defensive backs more difficult to evaluate for scouts used to charting players based on the old paradigms in which positional roles and positional value were far more defined. Now, evaluators have to find different ways to discover the prospects who fit what their teams want.
Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider told B/R that if a player is a distinct boundary cornerback or slot cornerback or deep safety, that's one thing. But if that player is standing in one or more spots doing any number of atypical things, spotting those traits is more of an athletic endeavor than a schematic one.
Los Angeles Rams GM Les Snead recalled that beyond the normal ways of determining those key attributes, special teams has become a major factor in determining athletic requirements for these positions.
"I was talking to one college coach who has a corner in the draft," Snead said. "He had a great story in that he played at a high school, they were basically, let's call it a deep-zone coverage. The conference he was in didn't throw the ball a lot. But you've got this big athlete. He ended up watching him as vice on the punt team, because that's when he's up pressing the gunner on the punt team. He says, 'Okay, that's when I saw him press, flip his hips and things like that.' So, it was interesting how he said how he found this particular corner. You've got to do those type of things."
Traits and attributes are important, but when it comes to the defensive back positions in the modern NFL, it's how you apply your physical gifts, and at how many positions you can do so. Minkah Fitzpatrick might have been seen as a "tweener" had he declared for the draft a decade ago, but in 2018, he'll be seen as one of his class's most valuable defensive players—and perhaps the first defensive player selected—precisely because he blurs the league's positional lines.