If you listen hard enough, you can hear the sound of 32 NFL defensive coordinators cajoling their general manager to find any way possible to grab Minkah Fitzpatrick in the upcoming draft.
Fitzpatrick is not merely the best defensive player in the class, he’s an embodiment of the evolution of the sport; near-positionless defensive maestros, built to stop the rise of pace-and-space offensive concepts.
Positional versatility is the name of the game. Football is a matchup sport. The NFL is moving more than ever pre-snap — shifting and motioning — in a bid to reveal coverages and create mismatches. Offensive principles are now based on the skills of blazing speedsters in space (agility, not just top-end speed), polar bears masquerading as tight ends, and guys with hops that we’re used to seeing compete in a dunk content, not on a football field.
Matching up with that is virtually impossible. Ask a staff how it will defend the trio of Travis Kelce, Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill, from the same personnel package, and they will blush. Pray?
There’s little you can do when a team can flex its back, tight end, or stud wide receiver to any and every spot on the field: split out, isolated on the backside of the formation, in the backfield, or in-line. Everyone can take-up multiple positions, and the offense has that age-old advantage of knowing what it’s doing before the ball is snapped.
Offensive movement forces defensive communication, the quickest way to miscommunication.
A defense must find guys who can line up in multiple spots, or a series of defenders who are comfortable covering whichever dude lines up in front of them — mitigating much of the effect of motioning or shifting. Those creatures don’t grow on trees.
Fitzpatrick represents a rare opportunity to land such a unicorn.
Watch an Alabama game, and you see Fitzpatrick play anywhere and everywhere: He will line up in the slot, his designated position; as a middle-of-the-field safety; as the spinner in a two-man tandem, rotating late towards the line of scrimmage or helping split the field in half; as a traditional box safety; as a boundary corner; as a dime linebacker; as an edge defender; and in any number of funky and wonderful blitz alignments.
He does it all:
Of course, lining up in a bunch of spots in and of itself is no great skill. It doesn’t matter where you align, or in how many spots, if you stink at most or all of them. NFL teams have had to find that one out the hard way.
Fortunately, Fitzpatrick doesn’t! He’s been a star at every position he’s lined up at, cultivating a unique roamer role that’s typically the antithesis of Nick Saban’s carefully calibrated ecosystem. Even cantankerous, old, stick-to-the-bleeping-scheme Saban had to embrace a new-age, player-specific role typically reserved for one of his linebackers; Fitzpatrick was just that good.
Everything stems from raw, unadulterated, athleticism. The term “freak” is thrown around loosely, but Fitzpatrick fits the bill.
Lean cut, with arms so long he can tie his shoes standing up, Fitzpatrick is an atypical inside corner. He’s a smooth athlete with a rare combination of fluidity, agility, top-end speed and length. Guys his size shouldn’t move so effortlessly; he shatters the norms.
His movement skills, at 6-foot-1, out of the slot, are astonishing. Everything at that spot is a tick quicker. And there’s a wider array of route combinations available to a receiver.
Slot corners have to move in every possible direction. They can’t just maraud up and down the sidelines, protected from any in-breaking stuff by a pattern-match scheme. There’s nowhere to hide, no white line to help out.
Some of Fitzpatrick’s plays are subtly gorgeous. At first, they look like non-events. It’s only with a second and third viewing that you appreciate the beauty (No. 29):
Fitzpatrick shuts the guy down in second gear. No big deal. It almost looks like he’s jogging, while the receiver revs into the red. Is there anything more demoralizing for a zippy slot receiver than knowing his quickest isn’t nearly quick enough?
Don’t mistake the ease of his play for a lack of effort. Ask him to chase something down from the middle of the field to the boundary and he jumps into full-on predator mode. Snarling. Fire-breathing. Scary:
Holy God. What are we even supposed to do with this guy? Some plays look better suited for the Discovery Channel, not ESPN.
In a conference with the best athletes in the nation, he was the best of them all. Saban and Co. embraced it, rolling out some quirky looks:
Above, Alabama showed a double A-Gap look — two defenders walked down either side of the center, typically a pair of linebackers. Fitzpatrick lined up in one of the gaps as a pseudo linebacker. Yet rather than bailing out into a hook zone, blitzing, or picking up the running back in man coverage, as is usual, Fitzpatrick turned and bolted. The uncovered slot receiver was his guy.
It was a crazy assignment, built to deceive a young quarterback — they didn’t even line up Fitzpatrick as the linebacker towards the slot receiver.
That play can only work because teams fear Fitzpatrick as a legit blitzing threat (and because he’s able to cover a stupid amount of ground in a stupid short time). He had 14 pressures on 57 pass-rushing snaps in 2017, the most of any draft-eligible cornerback, per Pro Football Focus.
The numbers are good. The process behind them even more encouraging.
Alabama was happy to line him up on the ball, or bring him from any number of different spots, to great reward:
He has the hops to beat opposing blockers to their pass set. They get off-balance and play for the outside shoulder, exposing an inside lane, or forcing a lunge.
Those dancing hips and long arms come in handy: Fitzpatrick can sink a hand into a blocker’s chest before they can get a hold of him; swat any flailing arms away; or re-route and dart towards the inside of a blocker who’s overplayed the speed rush.
It’s a nightmare for an offensive line to pick up and deal with — or whomever is tasked with getting in his way. It’s even worse for the quarterback: Where is he pre-snap? Where is he post-snap? On every snap. That’s the thought process. And it can be debilitating.
Sometimes he’ll line up in that same pseudo linebacker spot, encroaching on the line of scrimmage, only to drop out into an underneath zone:
Reaching where-is-he-at-all-times status is rarefied air, reserved for the best of the best: Troy Polamalu, Tyrann Mathieu, Earl Thomas and the like; guys with the range to cover acres of space in no time, and just enough freelancing to make plays a quarterback can’t see coming, no matter how much time they spend studying tape.
Fitzpatrick is the next in line. He appears and disappears as quickly as a Tasmanian Devil, leaving untold damage in his wake. Athleticism must be paired with smarts and instincts; he has both in droves. He arrives in all the right places at all the right times.
It starts against the run. That’s how you get to all the fun and games on third down.
As a run defender, he wins with his brain as much as his brawn. He’s mastered the intricacies of the game within the game; he’s happy to execute the little things, rather than sell out for highlight plays. He’s a team-construct defender — the best kind. He attacks the outside shoulder, works hard as a force-and-contain defender, breaks down well, and accelerates on contact. Perfect form.
He rarely, if ever, misses a tackle:
That’s one of those superhuman plays you need to watch a couple of times to fully appreciate its immenseness. It’s not easy to hurdle a guy, land, balanced, in a full sprint, and keep within Alabama’s outside-in squeeze construct, all in one motion. Go outside and give it a try. Let me know when to call the ambulance.
It’s in coverage where he’ll earn his NFL keep, though. That’s good, because it’s where Fitzpatrick excels.
Again, his instincts are excellent; he doesn’t arrive at the collision point on time, he arrives early. His understanding of route combinations and where he must be in relation to certain concepts is as good as any young cornerback I’ve evaluated who plays a bunch of snaps inside.
Fitzpatrick understands his physical advantage — the uniqueness of someone so big being able to move so fast. That helps in press coverage. He can shudder receivers off-the-snap, get on top of them early, and not relent until the end of the play, clinging right across the field.
He routinely undercuts routes, anticipating what a quarterback and receiver are going to do before they’ve decided themselves:
Fitzpatrick was initially beaten on the play above. The late rotation of his own teammate threw him off, acting as a pick to spring the Texas A&M receiver (not an isolated incident). No bother. Fitzpatrick, as he always does, navigated the maze. He sprinted in front of the receiver, undercut a poor throw, and landed the interception with some extra pizzazz.
Some feel as if ball skills are innate. If so, Fitzpatrick has whatever it is. He finished his Alabama career with 9 interceptions, and 35 passes defensed, despite opponents avoiding him as often as possible.
A bunch of that is thanks to that straight-line recovery speed. He out-athletes people, even if he’s beaten out of his stance. Fitzpatrick, somehow, had a big-time pass breakup against LSU, running stride-for-stride with a receiver, while pulling a hamstring:
I mean, this guy, really?
Recovery speed is essential. Every defensive back gets beaten at some point.
He’s at his best in off-coverage. That’s where all that fluidity and length give him an advantage when fighting against man-beater concepts:
Watch him key the route concept. No need to unleash that recovery speed. He absorbed the blow of the receiver, disrupted the timing of the pattern, smothered the dude from the far hash mark to the opposite sideline, and arrived at the receiver’s landmark before the receiver got there himself — positioning himself on the inside shoulder. He finished the play with a neat pass breakup.
The need for do-everything defensive backs who buzz around and cover every inch of grass has never been more prominent. Plus: Fitzpatrick has the combination of coverage skills, fluidity, length, ball skills and schematic versatility to move outside full-time if a team is so inclined.
Throw in the Jedi-level instincts and we’re dealing with something extra special. He’s not perfect. No prospect is. Sometimes he loses the ball in flight when up in press coverage — his production indicates the good far outweighs the bad.
One other wrinkle to watch: His awareness in tight quarters against stacked looks:
Alabama plays a ton of “Banjo” coverage to help its DBs out against obvious pick looks. But when it doesn’t, Fitzpatrick can struggle to scoot under those quick picks — better still: stand up to it and bench-press the receiver back to his own backfield.
It’s a specific flaw. We’re nitpicking with top-5 prospects such as Fitzpatrick.
(There also rumblings about his hamstring tweak, though medical checks at the scouting combine this week should allay any fears.)
Fitzpatrick will be really, really good, really, really fast. By the time April rolls around, he will sit atop a bunch of draft boards, positional value be damned. No one is a can’t-miss prospect, but Fitzpatrick is about as close as you can get.
Oliver Connolly is the Senior Football Analyst for Cox Media across its verticals. He is a former recruiting advisor, scout for NFL Draft scouting services, and lead evaluator for former NFL General Manager Ted Sundquist.