The Miami Dolphins used their 2018 first-round draft choice to select Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. The move gives them a player who can be used in multiple ways, from being a center-field type of free safety, to a cornerback, to an in-the-box strong safety, to covering tight ends. The Dolphins added a defensive player who should be able to come in, start immediately, and should be able to dominate in whatever role Miami gives him.
To get a better idea of exactly what they role should be, and where Fitzpatrick will fit with the Dolphins, I had a chance to talk to Brent Taylor over at SB Nation’s Alabama team site, Roll ‘Bama Roll, to get an insider look at Fitzpatrick:
I’m going to sound like a really biased hometown fan on all of this, so just go ahead and get ready for that. Minkah really is THAT good of a player, and was in talks as the best defender in the draft for a reason. To start off, he has a smooth, graceful athleticism that’s just a joy to watch. At 6’1” 200, he’s big for a defensive back, but still moves with the all the speed and fluidity of a jaguar. The first time that athleticism really just kinda hit me in the face was his freshman year against Texas A&M. He had two pick-6s in one game, but this specific one stood out to me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I4OACs4va0g
When he turns the corner and hits the jets, it just looks so effortless that it really took my breath away.
On top of that athleticism, he’s repeatedly been referred to as a “mini-Nick-Saban” with an extremely, borderline obsessive, attention to every little detail of everything, be it film, pass coverages, tackling technique, you name it. He’s a very smart player with enough work ethic to even get the notoriously ornery Saban to smile anytime he’s asked about Minkah by the press.
He’s got significant starting experience as a slot corner, free safety, and strong safety. He’s also played some outside corner when needed, but not to the extent that he played the other spots in the secondary. He’s fast enough to cover receivers down the field, big enough to hold his own against tight ends, and fluid enough to keep up with shifty slot receivers in the middle of the field (Best example: Notice he got beat by Clemson slot extraordinaire, Hunter Renfrow, in the 2015 national championship game for a touchdown. Later that game, he shut down the same route with a burst of closing speed. By his junior year and Alabama’s third try vs Clemson, Fitzpatrick played almost exclusively man-to-man on Renfrow rather than the usual pattern-matching zones Saban usually runs, and totally shut down Renfrow’s impact in the game)
Best of all is his ability to take on blockers and make tackles in the backfield. Wide receiver screens are nearly useless on his side of the field, as he’ll blow through most any blocker attempting to slow him down. He’s an amazingly consistent tackler who rarely ever misses an angle or a tackle.
There are a couple of areas that I would say aren’t as strong in his game, but I still wouldn’t necessarily call them weaknesses—more like just a glimpse of mortality.
The first is the same issue that plagues nearly every Nick Saban-coached defensive back (for whatever reason I’ll never understand), and that’s turning to swat passes when running stride-for-stride with a receiver deep down the field. He can be in perfect coverage, but still miss the ball or not get turned around at the right time or just get out-jumped. But so can any defensive back in the NFL… it’s just a really difficult thing to do.
The second is that he’s still working to get his reaction times to match his athletic ability and smarts. His freshman year, we saw quite often that he’d sometimes freeze in coverage, and you could almost see his mind working to come up with which receiver he needed to cover. He’s gotten progressively better every game since then, but there are still rare occasions where he thinks too hard for too long, rather than just reacting and attacking.
Where does he fit?
Though he can play any spot in the defensive backfield, I think he’s best suited to stick to a nickelback/slot-defender/box safety that stays near the line of scrimmage. He’s exceptional in coverage and is a ballhawk deep down the field as a center safety, but it would be a waste not to constantly utilize his ability to disrupt any sort of run or screen near the line of scrimmage. On top of that, he can be used to disguise all kinds of play calls and exotic blitzes, as he can line up on the slot but drop to deep safety at the last second, or vice versa.
What is his ceiling? Floor?
Ceiling? We’re talking about arguably the best defensive prospect to come out of the best college dynasty over the last decade. With prototypical size, exceptional athleticism, and work ethic/character in spades to boot. I have trouble seeing him being on the bench for long, if at all as a rookie, and fully expect him to be a starter before the year is out. And if he isn’t making pro bowls by about year 3, I’ll print out this article and eat it.
Floor? It may take him a year to get his reactions to catch up with the rest of the league if the Dolphins system is too much different from Alabama’s. I don’t see it being likely, but I’ll say that’s the minimum.
I’ve seen plenty of Alabama players get overdrafted and subsequently bust… Fitzpatrick will not be one of them.
Highlights to watch
I prefer to watch film, both the good and bad plays. So here’s a good one. It’s not perfect, like any player’s game tape, but it’s a good one to watch. In particular, check out his coverage on the play at 3:15.