Several weeks ago, I did a by the numbers piece on the top two Big Ten cornerbacks in this year’s draft, Ohio State’s Denzel Ward and Iowa’s Josh Jackson. This time, I am taking a look at two versatile defensive backs, Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick and Florida State’s Derwin James.
Fitzpatrick took college football by storm during his freshman season in 2015, earning Freshman All-American honors. He then took over at safety in 2016 following an injury to current Chicago Bears safety Eddie Jackson. He went on to lead the Crimson Tide with six interceptions, including two pick sixes. In his three seasons in Tuscaloosa, Fitzpatrick picked off nine passes, and returned nearly half of them (four) for scores.
The Alabama product excels in coverage, having a coverage grade at Pro Football Focus of higher than 80 each year with the Tide, including a grade of 87.8 as a sophomore in 2016. The guy is a ballhawk, as he had nine career interceptions, as I mentioned, and added 16 pass break-ups. His career passer rating when targeted was just 66.5.
According to PFF, the route he covered best was the crossing pattern, as Fitzpatrick just allowed a 27.4 passer rating on. He played his best in his last game, allowing only 10 yards on throws into Fitzpatrick’s coverage (33 snaps) in Alabama’s 26-23 win over Georgia in the National Championship.
As good as he was against the pass, he was as productive against the run as well. After a PFF grade of just 67.9 against the run as a freshman, Fitzpatrick turned it around in that area. becoming a stout run defender as well. In his last two seasons in Tuscaloosa, Fitzpatrick earned a PFF rating of at least 80 against the run, including an 85.2 run defense rating from PFF in 2017. That rating actually was higher than his coverage rating.
One of Fitzpatrick’s strengths is his versatility. as he can play any number of places on defense, whether it is in the box, a center fielder or defending slot wide receivers. He played mostly safety at Alabama, but has experience at cornerback considering he started his career at the position. Fitzpatrick especially excelled in the slot. In the regular season last season, he allowed just 19 catches for 238 yards and no touchdowns. The Alabama standout added three interceptions and allowed just a 36.1 passer rating when targeted in the slot.
James is a similar player to Fitzpatrick, in terms of versatility. The Florida State defensive back only had three interceptions with the Seminoles, but he excelled at blitzing, sacking opposing quarterbacks 5.5 times in his collegiate career. Heading into the year, James was looked at as a top five pick, despite having only played two games in 2016 due to a knee injury. The do-everything defensive back was an All-American in 2017, recording 84 tackles, two picks, 11 passes defensed and a sack.
The Florida State standout can play all over the field, much like Fitzpatrick. James can bring pressure from the secondary, play in the box as well as cover in the slot. He would be a perfect fit for the Packers should he last until pick No. 14.
After signing Tramon Williams, Green Bay needs a slot cornerback, and James fits that perfectly. According to PFF, he had the lowest catch rate allowed among all draft-eligible safeties, allowing just 44.7 percent. He was thrown at 39 times and only allowed 17 receptions. When he was targeted, he allowed just a 48.1 passer rating last season.
I mentioned that James has 5.5 career sacks, but it is more than that. His 13 quarterback pressures last season came on 43 pass rushes. Green Bay has a major need at pass rush and the Packers would welcome said pass rush from anywhere, even from the secondary. He is a queen on the chess board, and Mike Pettine would know just how to use him.
James’ 92.1 PFF rating was highest rating for a safety last season and was a PFF All-American. He could very well go before Green Bay, but if he lasts, the Packers should run the card up to the podium.
It is an interesting comparison between the two. Both players possess good speed, both running sub-4.50. They both should be top 10 picks, but if one falls to Green Bay, the Packers will have a great player on their hands. Both players have great skills who would help the Green & Gold for the next decade. Pettine would be able to put either of these guys in great position to help the team succeed.——————
Jonathon Zenk is a writer for PackersTalk.com. He is a huge Packers fan, and a graduate of The University of Wisconsin - Green Bay. You can follow Jonathon on Twitter at @jzenk42