TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Football announcer and analyst Kirk Herbstreit likes to tell the story about the first time he saw Minkah Fitzpatrick on a field, before the defensive back played his first collegiate game.
It was August 2015 and the University of Alabama football team was in the midst of fall camp. Herbstreit was coming through town so called ahead and asked if he could watch the Crimson Tide’s first closed scrimmage from the stands to get a feel for the team. His intent was to focus on the quarterback competition between Jake Coker, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett.
Instead, someone else caught his eye, a true freshman who was working through some injuries but would still stand next to the defensive coordinator along the sideline and ask questions when everyone else went off to get water or sit down.
“Man, what’s up with No. 29?” Herbstreit asked then-defensive coordinator Kirby Smart on his way out of Bryant-Denny Stadium. “His eyes got real big, like special, different kind of guy.”
Thursday night, Minkah Fitzpatrick will almost certainly reap the rewards of his hard work and attention to detail when he hears his name called as a first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. As for when or where he might end up your guess is as good as any, but he’s the kind of player every team covets for a variety of reasons and can rarely find.
“His intelligence to me is what separates him,” said Herbstreit, who predicts the kid he saw learning his way during that scrimmage will become a perennial Pro Bowl player.
Yet, at what position?
Even though Fitzpatrick played his final season at Alabama primarily at safety, he lined up at every spot in dime package during his career. Ideally he signed on with the Crimson Tide to play cornerback, but injuries and other issues worked against him as Nick Saban needed him elsewhere in order to get the best players on the field together.
So, while there’s a very strong possibility that a team will draft Fitzpatrick with the intention of making him a safety, he could still be selected to play cornerback.
A lot of people are saying he has to move to safety, but why? @PFF_Steve breaks down Minkah Fitzpatrick's one-on-one coverage ability on the latest NFL Draft Preview Show with @PFF https://t.co/SasVmMxQD0 pic.twitter.com/K8kqbGkRwP
— The MMQB (@theMMQB) April 17, 2018
Either way, Mike Mayock of the NFL Network calls him one of few “plug-and-play” talents in the draft, one a team can select and immediately ink him in as a starter. On his top 100 list he had Fitzpatrick at No. 5, one spot ahead of premier Florida State safety Derwin James.
He calls them both “unbelievable” prospects.
Most mock drafts have Fitzpatrick going somewhere between seventh (which seems unlikely as there’s a lot of buzz the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will take the home-grown James if given the chance), and the mid-first round. Consequently, Green Bay at No. 14, and already with Ha-Ha Clinton Dix, might be foaming at the mouth at the possibility of pairing them together, and who knows what teams might be willing to trade up.
It’s not just because Fitzpatrick’s resume is stellar. He’s a natural leader, a student of the game and even has a charismatic personality. How many players could have gotten Saban to sway to music with him during an Alabama national championship celebration?
— Grace Remington (@Grace_Remi) January 20, 2018
A unanimous All-American selection he became just the third player in history to win both the Bednarik and Thorpe awards as best defensive player and defensive back, respectively, in the same season. The others were cornerbacks: NFL Hall of Famer Charles Woodson and current Arizona Cardinals All-Pro Patrick Peterson.
It’s because multi-dimensional safeties are becoming among the most coveted players in the league.
“Safety is becoming a premium, premium position in the NFL,” said Louis Riddick, ESPN’s NFL Front Office Insider. “It’s like linebacker because you need to defend these hybrid offensive weapons that people are deploying in the middle of the field. That’s the real estate that you have to protect.”
A reflection of the changing priority was evident during last year’s draft, when the first safety, LSU’s Jamal Adams at No. 6, was selected before the first cornerback, Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore at No. 11.
Moving cornerbacks to safety, like Alabama’s Eddie Jackson before being drafted by the Chicago Bears, is one way teams are adjusting, another has been to convert safeties into linebackers. Former Alabama player Mark Barron did so with the Los Angeles Rams and the New York Giants are thought to be considering something similar with Landon Collins.
Defenses are desperate for the speed, especially in the middle.
Moreover, they can find hard-hitting safeties that excel against the run, which is why Alabama’s Ronnie Harrison may not be selected in the first round. What they desire for is someone who can play on the back end on one play and down in the box on the next, or go from covering someone in the slot to handling tight ends in man-to-man.
They all want someone like Eric Berry of the Kansas City Chiefs, only without his injury issues.
Fitzpatrick can be that kind of player, which is why his draft stock is so high.
“Coaches will tell you if you don’t have good safeties or one of those kinds of safeties it really limits your options defensively,” said Greg Cosell, ESPN’s NFL matchup analyst. “That to me becomes the critical point.”