Simply put, Minkah Fitzpatrick might just be the cleanest NFL prospect in college football.
Over the past three years the New Jersey native started every game at Alabama except his first one - the 2015 season opener against Wisconsin in which he recorded five tackles, including a sack and a pass broken up. He has since emerged as the most versatile and dependable player on arguably the most talented team in the country, earning All-American honors all three seasons while alternating between both safety roles, cornerback (outside and inside), linebacker and Alabama's STAR position, a hybrid role of all three.
Fitzpatrick possesses the raw athleticism, instincts and toughness to continue playing multiple roles at the next level, projecting as an early first round pick and a serious contender to be the first defender selected in 2018. The question is not whether Fitzpatrick can play cornerback or safety in the NFL but which position the team lucky enough to select him needs help at most.
Like many of the top-ranked NFL prospects dotting Alabama's roster, Fitzpatrick was nearly universally regarded as a five-star prep recruit when he signed with the Tide, choosing Nick Saban's bunch over the likes of Florida State, Auburn, Oklahoma and Boston College, among others.
With future NFL draft picks starting at cornerback and safety, Fitzpatrick initially "starred" at the STAR position, quickly living up to his hype by recording 45 tackles (including three for loss and two sacks), 11 passes broken up and two interceptions as a true freshman. Starting a trend which would ultimately earn him a spot in Alabama's record books, Fitzpatrick returned both of his interceptions, standing out a as a true freshman on a squad that ultimately won the national championship. Fitzpatrick also blocked a punt, returning it for a score, as well.
By the conclusion of his true sophomore season, Fitzpatrick had already set a new Alabama record for career interceptions returned for touchdowns with four, ranking among national leaders with six picks on the season despite making the move to free safety due to injuries to teammates. Besides the gaudy interception totals, Fitzpatrick also registered 66 tackles, including five for loss, a sack, a forced fumble and seven pass breakups.
Finally allowed to move back to his high school position of cornerback in 2017, Fitzpatrick capped his career at Alabama in fine form, earning both the Bednarik and Thorpe Awards. Those who questioned whether he possessed the agility to remain at this position in the NFL were quieted when he blanketed highly regarded Texas A&M wideout Christian Kirk in one of the more eagerly anticipated one-on-one showdowns of the season.
Universally recognized as one of the elite prep defensive backs in the country, earning five stars from Scout.com and Rivals.com and was named a 2015 Parade All-American. Recorded 60 tackles and three interceptions as a senior in 2014 after accounting for 62 tackles with four picks and 21 pass breakups in 2013. Grew up in a blue collar family (father is a truck mechanic) which was uprooted by Hurricane Irene in August, 2011, forcing Fitzpatrick, his four siblings and both parents to live in the basement of his maternal grandparents' home for a year while their house - which was not covered for flood insurance because it did not lie in a traditional flood zone - was fixed.
Possesses an athletic, well-distributed musculature with above-average height, weight and long limbs. Light on his feet, accelerating quickly and showing the loose hips necessary for changing direction quickly, often lining up inside against the smaller, quicker slot receivers. Possesses good downfield speed and plays even faster than he will time in workouts due to terrific instincts.
Commitment to the film room is evident with Fitzpatrick's recognition of tendencies and route anticipation, as well as the fact that he makes many of the secondary calls - a rarity for an underclassman. Shows a legitimate second gear to close on the ball (see Texas A&M, LSU 2017 games) and excellent ball-skills, intercepting eight passes over his first two seasons and returning half of them for touchdowns with another score coming in 2015 when he recovered his own blocked punt... Good spatial awareness of would-be blockers and receivers around him.
Comfortable in the close quarters near the line of scrimmage amidst the big bodies. Frequent blitzer who shows savvy in defeating blocks. Coordinated feet and hands to avoid would-be blockers and uses a quick swim move as well as a physical punch when necessary to disengage quickly. Reliable open-field tackler who can deliver a blow and wraps his arms securely around the legs of ball-carriers. Seemingly always around the ball.
Jack of all trades who was moved around so much in Alabama's scheme that some question his best fit in an NFL defense. Quicker than fast, lacking the straight-line speed some would prefer on the boundary. A bit high in his back pedal and loses a step in his transition. Almost too competitive... Can get down on himself for giving up a reception and has to continue working on playing with amnesia, forgetting the last play and moving on to the next. -- Rob Rang 12/9/2017
COMPARES TO: Hall of Famer Aeneas Williams, Cardinals. They have similar grades for their versatility, instincts and knack for turning interceptions into touchdowns, Fitzpatrick evokes memories of a young Williams, who earned eight Pro Bowl invitations (seven as a cornerback, one at safety) in large part because of his 55 career interceptions - 9 of which he returned for scores.
IN OUR VIEW: Few non-quarterbacks will enter the 2018 NFL Draft more decorated than Fitzpatrick, a standout regardless of where Alabama asked him to line up since his true freshman season and the reigning winner of the Chuck Bednarik (nation's top defender) and Jim Thorpe (nation's top defensive back) awards. The first round cinch joins legends Charles Woodson (Michigan, 1997) and Patrick Peterson (LSU, 2010) as just the third player to ever win both the Bednarik and Thorpe awards in the same season.
Blessed with the athleticism and competitive handle cornerback, as well as the diagnosis skills, range and physicality to slide back to safety, the only question scouts might have for Fitzpatrick is how best to take full advantage of an obvious athletic skill-set and the mental maturity gained from his blue-collar upbringing. --Rob Rang 12/13/17
High effort player passionate in pursuit. Standout on special teams coverage units, excelling in the gunner role with two career blocked kicks, including one just before the half to preserve a 10-7 lead over Florida State in the 2017 season-opener. Characterized as having "off the charts" intangibles including a rare work ethic and competitive drive. - Rob Rang 12/9/2017