For much of draft season, the general belief has been that Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick wouldn’t make it past the sixth or seventh selection in the 2018 NFL Draft. But in his latest mock draft for ESPN, Mel Kiper predicts that the 6’1″, 205-pound Fitzpatrick, who tallied 60 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception for the Crimson Tide in 2017, will fall all the way to the San Francisco 49ers at pick No. 9.
“San Francisco picked up Richard Sherman before free agency started,” Kiper said, “but its defensive backfield still isn’t set. The 49ers could take the versatile Fitzpatrick and use him in a hybrid safety role in which he plays some slot corner too. He’s a true play-maker with the size and athleticism to play any position in the secondary. General manager John Lynch showed last year that he isn’t afraid to make draft-day trades, so this is a spot to watch for teams moving up.”
Mind you, just because Fitzpatrick is projected to go toward the back end of the top 10 doesn’t mean that Fitzpatrick is the ninth-best prospect in 2018. In fact, one NFL GM told Kristian Dyer of the Sporting News that he feels Fitzpatrick is a top-three talent.
“You want to talk about a kid who is impressing on tape and in person is Minkah Fitzpatrick,” the GM said, “He’s a real deal. His vision and range — you can slot him into a defense come Week 1. He’s a stud. A lot of people talked about the safety (Jamal Adams) the Jets took last year. I think Fitzpatrick is every bit as good when you’re talking defensive backs this (year). I think he’s one of those guys when you watch him on tape, you think he’s a top pick. He’s in those top three picks for me. He makes plays. To me he is one of the best players in the draft.”
Per Lance Zierlein of NFL.com, that wasn’t the only NFL executive who made the comparison between Adams and Fitzpatrick. “He’s not quite on the same level of Jamal Adams when it comes to changing the entire culture of a locker room,” one AFC executive said, “but he is just as talented and probably more versatile.”
Zierlein, for his part, compared Fitzpatrick to Budda Baker of the Arizona Cardinals. “Fitzpatrick turns up the intensity level as high as it will go and rips off the knob until the game is over,” Zierlein said. “Fitzpatrick has experience as a slot cornerback, but will likely be targeted as a “do-everything” safety who can be deployed as a sub-package linebacker, a blitzer or in the slot against big receivers and move tight ends. Fitzpatrick has consistently shined since his freshman season on Alabama defenses that have been loaded with NFL talent. His versatility, football character and desire to succeed give him Pro Bowl potential and should make him an early starter.”
Fitzpatrick’s versatility also stood out to Ian Boyd of SB Nation. “At the Combine,” Boyd said, “he wowed by running a 4.46 40 at 6’1 and 205 pounds. Only a handful of DBs his size or bigger have ever moved faster at the Combine. With that kind of size and speed, he’s among the most elite athletes in the NFL, even before you factor in the demonstrated ways he’s applied that athleticism with technical skill. NFL teams need guys who are smart and skilled enough to move around and cover the most dangerous opposing receivers. Fitzpatrick can do that as well as anyone in the draft.”
As Fitzpatrick told Boyd’s colleague Alex Kirshner, he’s comfortable playing all over the defense, although by the end of the 2017 season he was mainly used as a nickel corner or sub-package linebacker. “It’s a different type of position,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s kind of a combination between corner and safety. You can make calls like a safety. You can make calls like a safety. You can rush, you can fill the holes and the gaps like a safety. But then you can cover man to man on pass downs when you need to, just like a corner. So, I like playing both corner and safety, so I think slot corner’s just the optimal position.”
That same Swiss Army Knife ability defensively is why Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller believes the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will pounce on Fitzpatrick at 7.” A quick look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ depth chart tells you all you need to know about this secondary and how important it is that general manager Jason Licht finds a starting safety,” Miller wrote. “Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick is the ideal fit given not only his football IQ and versatility, but also his leadership and character. Fitzpatrick is a defensive eraser. Alabama moved him from corner to safety to a nickel spot throughout his career, and he flourished in each. The Buccaneers would likely identify him as a plug-and-play starter at strong safety. Given how productive he was in that role for the Crimson Tide, he could have a Jamal Adams-type of rookie season.”
Cue IDP owners both smiling and frowning. Smiling, because a role at strong safety should equate to more time closer to the line of scrimmage – time that means more opportunities to make stops. They are frowning because for all Adams talent and preseason hype (much of which was provided by yours truly) Adams went on to accrue just 83 tackles as a rookie, finishing 29th in Fantasy Sharks Default IDP Scoring—in part because the Jets moved him around.
Fitzpatrick’s going to be a difference-maker in the NFL. But it might not happen right away—or in a manner that leads to a ton of statistical production.
There’s no such thing as a risk-free DB. Or at least a precious few.
However, Fitzpatrick has the talent and natural ability to one day enter that conversation. Some of his fantasy value will depend on landing spot (it always does), but Fitzpatrick’s in the lower-end IDP DB2 (DB20-25) conversation, with a slightly higher value in dynasty startups. He and Florida State’s Derwin James are essentially neck-and-neck in those formats (although that could change post-draft)), and the pair are just about the only rookie defensive backs worth a look in all but the deepest IDP rookie drafts.