Editor's note: Eric Crocker is a former AFL/NFL cornerback who now specializes in the defensive back position. This is part of a series in which he'll be providing a unique perspective on DB options for the 49ers.
Minkah Fitzpatrick - Jr, Alabama
Ht/wt: 6-foot-1, 201 lbs.
2017: 60 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT, 7 PBU, FF
Is he a safety? Is he a cornerback? There’s no doubt Minkah Fitzpatrick is the top defensive back in the 2018 NFL Draft. The biggest question will be, where is he going to line up? My answer to that is wherever you need him.
Fitzpatrick has been listed as a safety but more than 75% of the time he’s lined up in what Alabama calls the “Star” position. He has shown the ability to line up in all three secondary positions: Outside corner, slot and safety. In this write up I will explain why I feel he would be a great pick for the 49ers and how I think they can maximize his versatility.
The 49ers are in a tight situation. They are set to lose strong safety Eric Reid to free agency. Defensive back Jimmie Ward is entering his fifth-year option season coming off back-to-back years in which he landed on injured reserve. And the 49ers have no real option at cornerback opposite Ahkello Witherspoon.
Fitzpatrick is Reid, Ward and Witherspoon all in one.
Now, I could shower this write-up with splash plays and big-time interceptions returned for touchdowns—which it seems like Fitzpatrick did on a regular basis—but instead I wanted to highlight some of the things he regularly did well that might go unnoticed.
Fitzpatrick’s skillset can be used in a multitude of ways. Think Green Bay Packers Charles Woodson. He played outside corner when needed. He lined up in the slot and at safety, and had the best years of his career.
Like Woodson, whether Fitzpatrick was on the outside playing corner or in the slot at Alabama’s star position, he diagnosed plays very quickly and was aggressive setting edges and attacking ball carriers, allowing him to disrupt plays in the backfield.
The 49ers currently have K’Waun Williams in the slot. In base situations he’s usually on the sideline. Having Fitzpatrick in the slot allowed Alabama to not only leave him on the field in base defenses, but also use him on the line of scrimmage where he was stuffing runs and getting tons of quarterback pressures. He also lined up at linebacker and would be used to stunt with defensive linemen.
In coverage Fitzpatrick showed great closing speed on underneath passes. This is important as the 49ers’ slots play in a lot of space. In San Francisco’s Cover 3 scheme, the slot defender has responsibility of the seams to flats. Fitzpatrick excelled at this, showing ability to read and react quickly.
NFL teams often depend on mesh concepts to get their slot receivers open on shallow crossers. Most defenders have trouble fighting through the traffic causing them to give up easy first downs or touchdowns. Check out the closing speed Fitzpatrick displays to intercept this pass against Texas A&M.
Heading into draft week, the experts expect Fitzpatrick to run well in the 40 yard dash. On film he exhibited his long speed on several occasions. A combination of fluid hips and good feet allowed him to play off coverage from the slot and effortlessly turn and run with slot receivers.
At times he would get beat on in-breaking routes out of the slot. Depending on the defense, quick slants while he was in off coverage seemed to be a bit of an issue – but breaking on out routes from the slot and outside seemed to be a strength of his.
Typically you don’t want your cornerbacks speed turning on simple out routes. But here against Arkansas, Fitzpatrick shows those fluid hips and feet I spoke about earlier.
Fit with 49ers:
The model for how you use Fitzpatrick is Charles Woodson’s Green Bay days. Move him around and match him up with the opponent's best weapon. As far as finding a full-time a fit with the 49ers, with Adrian Colbert looking locked in at deep safety, it would seem that Fitzpatrick would cut into K’Waun Williams’ reps, because he is someone you always want on the field and playing in the slot. He'd be great in nickel and dime situations, and playing near the line of scrimmage. Fitzpatrick is also a much better match up vs. tight ends than what we saw from Eric Reid. And ideally, the 49ers spend in free agency on a true boundary corner like Trumaine Johnson.
Media courtesy Alabama Athletics