The 2018 Super Bowl featured two teams on a similar offensive wavelength. The Patriots have a deep playbook with a variety of formations and route combos, but a significant chunk involves moving Rob Gronkowski around to create matchup problems. Similarly, the Eagles generated a lot of good one-on-one matchups outside due to New England’s need to double TE Zach Ertz.
The NFL is all about the passing game, and defenses play a great deal of man coverage. Consequently, offense becomes about fielding highly skilled and/or freakish targets who can play multiple positions, then hunting matchups. Before every snap, particularly on obvious passing downs, a high-level chess match occurs, with offenses using multiple formations and motion to suss out the coverage.
For the defense, one key is being able to field guys like Philadelphia’s Malcolm Jenkins or New England’s Patrick Chung. Versatile DBs who can cover different kinds of receivers are everything, the equivalent of the classic middle linebacker in yesteryear, when it was all about hitting the point of attack in the run game.
In this modern NFL, there’s perhaps no player more valuable for a backfield than Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick.
A five-star blue-chipper from New Jersey, Fitzpatrick had a highly decorated career for the Tide. He started 14 games as a true freshman after learning not only to play CB in Nick Saban’s extensive, pattern-matching playbook, but also the more complicated nickel position. He broke up 11 passes and picked off two more for a national champion.
The following year, Fitzpatrick finished at strong safety, which allowed him to attack the ball and pick off six passes. In 2017, he moved back to the nickel, having a quiet statistical year, with a single INT and eight break-ups. The Thorpe Award panel clearly watched film, though, and recognized that Fitzpatrick’s coverage ability and reputation made opponents avoid the middle of the field.
Not many players earn this kind of praise from Saban, a DB coach by trade:
Saban on M. Fitzpatrick: "He's phenomenal. He does it every day. I've heard guys say they save it for the game and they aren't worth a shit"— Cecil Hurt (@CecilHurt) August 16, 2017
At the Combine, he wowed by running a 4.46 40 at 6’1 and 205 pounds. Only a handful of DBs his size or bigger have ever moved faster at the Combine.
With that kind of size and speed, he’s among the most elite athletes in the NFL, even before you factor in the demonstrated ways he’s applied that athleticism with technical skill.
Bama determined his greatest value was as the “star” (nickel) defender in the main 4-2-5 and as a “money” linebacker in dime schemes.
Here’s the former alignment:
This is Alabama’s nickel package against one of Texas A&M’s standard four-receiver sets. Saban treats the slot receiver on the wide side of the field as the greater threat, because of the open grass to run around in, so that’s where the nickel lines up. So when A&M was determining whether to get Christian Kirk into more space or a better matchup, it chose to face him against linebacker Rashaan Evans in tight confines, rather than putting him up against Fitzpatrick.
Seven of the Aggies’ 29 attempts were targeted at Kirk, and they netted 52 yards (7.4 yards per target) and a TD reception, plus a 15-yard holding penalty on Fitzpatrick. The Aggies struggled to get Kirk open, particularly on passing downs, when Fitzpatrick would move inside to the money position.
The Aggies weren’t the only team that made this calculation to avoid Fitzpatrick, either:
Clemson used the same trick with slot Hunter Renfrow. He finished the Playoff semi-final with five catches for 31 yards off nine targets (3.44 per target). Naturally, Clemson didn’t do much scoring without its favorite inside target.
On obvious passing downs, the Tide spun Evans down to a OLB/DE position and replaced him with Fitzpatrick, replacing Fitzpatrick with another corner (often Tony Brown). From that package, the Tide increased the potency of their pass-rush, but even more importantly, played tight man coverage on all four receivers while still using two deep safeties.
... is the kind of throw and route it took to beat Alabama in that package. Needless to say, execution at that level isn’t often sustainable.
The fact that a 205-pound former safety is fast and skilled enough to play over elite slot receivers portends a broad future.
Whichever team drafts him might determine he’s best lined up on a TE like Gronkowski or Ertz, potentially allowing the defense to shade coverage help elsewhere. Here was an example of Fitz matching up on a 6’4 TE, Isaac Nauta:
Georgia took advantage of the nickel defender here, with a go route from the slot. Fitzpatrick wasn’t on the slot because Alabama’s dime meant he was on the TE. The Tide brought a single-deep safety blitz with the other linebacker and the boundary safety rushing, which meant Fitzpatrick was on an island against the “stick” option route by the TE. He withstood the collision with the 246-pounder without giving up separation and was in position to break on a pass, had Georgia not aimed elsewhere.
If Fitzpatrick is strong enough to play on bigger TEs, he could do wonders for a team that doesn’t want to send safety help inside.
These positions also require some run defense.
Offenses love to play their best targets inside, not only because they’re closer, but because they can match up on box defenders who are run-stoppers first and coverage defenders second. Many offenses will respond to an opponent dropping a DB close to the line by happily running the ball, but Fitzpatrick played in those positions for a reason.
The Tide liked to keep him in man coverage and drop a safety down to handle the run, but Fitz was capable of taking on blocks and fitting the run. The more physical requirements of playing inside are not daunting to him.
NFL teams need guys who are smart and skilled enough to move around and cover the most dangerous opposing receivers. Fitzpatrick can do that as well as anyone in the draft.