Futures

Analyzing the tape of college football's best players... and the NFL's future stars.

Futures: Minkah Fitzpatrick

by Derrik Klassen

Minkah Fitzpatrick is not an outside cornerback. Under Nick Saban's tutelage at Alabama, Fitzpatrick hardly played as an outside cornerback, yet he has been regularly projected to that position in the NFL. The value of a shutdown cornerback, in addition to Fitzpatrick's recruitment to Alabama as an outside cornerback, has clouded the fact that Saban tweaked his defense around a unique hybrid role carved out for Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick has too special a skill set to be pigeonholed at any one position, and Saban took full advantage.

Saban asked Fitzpatrick to be both a safety and a slot corner. The degree to which Fitzpatrick was deployed in either role depended on matchups, personnel packages, and opponent tendencies, but Fitzpatrick always moved around in Saban's defense. For example, Fitzpatrick may have been used as a centerfielder in Cover-3 in a suspected vertical passing situation, whereas a quick pass or short conversion situation may have called for Fitzpatrick to be in the box or in the slot. In simpler terms, Fitzpatrick tended to be where Saban felt was the focal point of the upcoming offensive play. Fitzpatrick was Saban's go-to.

     

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On this play, Fitzpatrick is rolled down to the line of scrimmage as a slot cornerback on third-and-six. Colorado State motions out of their 2x2 formation into a tight bunch to the right side of the formation, sending Fitzpatrick's assignment player as the motion man. Fitzpatrick (29) travels across the line of scrimmage with the receiver to match him. On his way over, Fitzpatrick makes a hand signal and verbal call-out to communicate the coverage change based on the shift.

Fitzpatrick's assignment is now changed, and he must correctly match to a receiver from the bunch formation. Being the inside defender over the trips bunch, Fitzpatrick is responsible for the first receiver inside or across the formation. Fitzpatrick finds a receiver cutting inside underneath two vertical routes and makes a beeline for him. The receiver makes the catch uncontested, but Fitzpatrick closes and makes the tackle before the receiver can convert a first down.

     

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Once again, Fitzpatrick is the one to make the stop on third down. Alabama comes out in a quasi-"point" front with the intention of playing man free with a "rat" player underneath. Fitzpatrick is lined up as the point player over the tight end and inside of the edge rusher to that side of the formation.

Fitzpatrick gets right in the tight end's face and punishes him throughout the route. Vanderbilt's tight end tries to run an intermediate crosser, but Fitzpatrick is draped over him the whole way. As Vanderbilt's quarterback throws a desperate pass toward the tight end, Fitzpatrick dives in to disrupt the catch point and force the pass to hit the ground.

The value Fitzpatrick brings as a player who can cover tight ends and slot receivers is rare. Eric Berry of the Chiefs is similar in that regard. During Week 1 of the 2017 season, Berry matched up with Rob Gronkowski and shut him down as well as anyone reasonably could. Fitzpatrick is not quite the athlete Berry is, but he does possess the same coverage versatility.

Of course, Fitzpatrick can also be a more traditional free safety. Auburn is aligned in a 2x2 formation with offset stacks to either side of the formation on this play. Fitzpatrick is lined up down the field alongside a fellow safety, meaning Alabama is showing a two-high coverage shell before the snap. However, once the ball is snapped, Fitzpatrick trails into a deep zone in the middle of the field, while the other safety rolls down into the box.

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The vertical combination to the wide side of the field crosses up Alabama's cornerbacks. As a result, the inside vertical receiver earns a free path down the left hash. Versus most free safeties, this would be free yards for the offense, but Fitzpatrick is no typical free safety. Fitzpatrick keys the quarterback's eyes from the moment he catches the snap. Fitzpatrick then triggers toward the hash once the quarterback begins his throwing motion. Auburn's quarterback fits the throw in between Fitzpatrick and the cornerback, but Fitzpatrick closes on the receiver and blows him up before he can gain full control of the ball to complete the catch.

Fitzpatrick's value stretches well beyond coverage situations. Fitzpatrick is a hyper-aggressive player near the line of scrimmage. Whether he is defending the run or flying to the flats to minimize yards after the catch, Fitzpatrick plays with an intensity desired of a team captain and leader.

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Fresno State tried to get the best of Fitzpatrick and the Crimson Tide defense on this play with a quick shift right before the snap. As both sides are adjusting, Fitzpatrick trots down to the line of scrimmage to jam the receiver. Fitzpatrick recognizes what Fresno State might be up to and prepares himself accordingly. The moment Fresno State snaps the ball and shows the quick screen, Fitzpatrick drives the receiver in front of him into the intended screen target. Fitzpatrick would have disrupted the catch point had the ball been on target. It is one thing for a defensive back to minimize gains from screens, but to vanquish them altogether as regularly as Fitzpatrick does takes a rare breed of player.

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Fitzpatrick is also a fantastic blitzer, and Saban asked him to do so on a regular basis. In this first example versus Mississippi State, Fitzpatrick is met by a running back in pass protection. Fitzpatrick approaches the running back full speed, swipes at his hands to avoid an engagement, and bends around the block. Once free, Fitzpatrick rushes after the quarterback. The quarterback feels Fitzpatrick's pressure and tries to drift away, but the All-American safety is too quick. Fitzpatrick knocks the quarterback as he attempts a pass and the ball goes awry, wobbling about on its way to the ground somewhere near the intended target.

As a frequent blitzer, Fitzpatrick came to understand that he was not always going to get to the quarterback right away. Sometimes the ball was going to come out early or the protection would slide his way.

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This clip versus Colorado State exemplifies Fitzpatrick's awareness and adaptability as a blitzer. In approaching the line of scrimmage, Fitzpatrick notices the quarterback quickly turn to the right and wind up to throw. Fitzpatrick decides to jump and try to block the throwing lane rather than continue his rush path. Fitzpatrick finds the ball in the air and swats it back down, trading the tough pass deflection for a brutal hit from the right tackle.

The multi-faceted nature of Fitzpatrick's play is not something that comes easily for any player. Fitzpatrick can wear as many hats as he does because of the way he prepares, not because of any athletic advantage he may have. Fitzpatrick is a meticulous and calculated player who brought a coach-on-the-field presence while at Alabama. Before each snap, Fitzpatrick is alert and vocal in helping his teammates get into proper position. Saban himself even compared Fitzpatrick's work ethic to his own, praising Fitzpatrick's dedication to the finer aspects of success.

Fitzpatrick is the next evolution of defensive backs in the NFL. He is a shot-caller, a slot cornerback, and a free safety all at once. With defenses constantly searching for answers to an ever-changing offensive landscape, Minkah Fitzpatrick can be the skeleton key.

Comments

5 comments, Last at 12 Mar 2018, 1:40pm

1 Re: Futures: Minkah Fitzpatrick

by billprudden // Mar 08, 2018 - 2:11pm

This is a great series, and thanks guys.

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2 Re: Futures: Minkah Fitzpatrick

by jtr // Mar 08, 2018 - 2:20pm

I just hope he ends up on a defense with a creative defensive coordinator who moves him around to suit his talents. It's unfortunately all to easy to imagine an NFL team with a rigid scheme deciding to plug him in at slot, box safety, or centerfield, and just leave him there.

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3 Streamable video

by anotheroldguy // Mar 09, 2018 - 12:24am

Enjoyed the column, look forward to watching him on Sunday.

I just wanted to say that these Streamable videos are the best tech for that on the site I've seen so far. For me, (Firefox on a Mac) they run directly embedded in the page (many formats don't) and have a lovely speed selection using right click so I can slow it down to 1/2 or even 1/4 to see what's going on.

I don't know how your IT is run, but if you could standardize on this for all video that would be just lovely AFAIC.

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4 Re: Futures: Minkah Fitzpatrick

by Theo // Mar 11, 2018 - 12:09am

He could end up at the Browns at #4, I wonder if he can be a good safety tandem with Peppers. They both can play deep and near the LOS.

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5 Re: Futures: Minkah Fitzpatrick

by Guest789 // Mar 12, 2018 - 1:40pm

He reminds me a lot of Tyrann Mathieu. Is that an apt comparison?

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