FAB 2. Bucs Should Pass On Alabama’s Fitzpatrick
Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick is the latest flavor of the month to be mocked to Tampa Bay in the latest round of some high-profile mock drafts this week. The Bucs draft Fitzpatrick in mock drafts by NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein and Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller.
I already objected to Miller choosing Fitzpatrick over Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson, who was the Bucs’ first-round pick in PewterReport.com’s initial 2018 Bucs’ 7-Round Mock Draft. I happen to think Nelson is a much better player Fitzpatrick is. At least Zierlein had Nelson off the board at No. 5 to Denver. North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb was selected by Indianapolis at No. 3 in both of those mock drafts.
Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea, who was Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in PewterReport.com’s second 2018 Bucs’ 7-Round Mock Draft, was selected 13th overall by Washington. I’d take Nelson or Vea over Fitzpatrick every time if the mauling guard or the mammoth defensive tackle were still on the board at No. 7.
Despite the fact that some are projecting Fitzpatrick as an outside cornerback – even our own Trevor Sikkema thinks the All-American can do it – at the next level, he’s actually a safety. The vast majority of Fitzpatrick’s snaps at Alabama came at safety or the STAR position, which is a quasi-slot-cornerback-linebacker role, for a reason. That’s where Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban felt he was best suited to play.
I’m not saying that Fitzpatrick isn’t worth a top 10 pick. It’s just that he’s a safety – a free safety, really – and that’s how most of the teams in the league view him based on the intel we’ve gathered from our sources at the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl. So if a team needs a safety, Fitzpatrick or Florida State’s Derwin James are the guys to target.
The Bucs already have a free safety after spending last year’s second-round pick on Justin Evans, whom the team is thrilled with after he recorded three interceptions during his rookie season.
It is way too risky for this franchise to project Fitzpatrick as an outside cornerback with the seventh overall pick when the film isn’t there to support such a move. I know Sikkema found some instances where Fitzpatrick played outside for a few plays, but those snaps he detailed in his Cover 3 column were the exception and not the norm.
Tampa Bay needs a surefire home-run player that can come in and make an impact right away as a Day 1 starter. How much developmental time would Fitzpatrick need to become a true shutdown corner – supposing he could ever reach that level in the NFL?
If Fitzpatrick had three years of exquisite game film as a cornerback and was the next coming of Patrick Peterson he’d be a no-brainer pick for the Bucs, who do need help at the position. But he doesn’t. He mostly played between the seams in the middle of the field, not the perimeter, which is where Tampa Bay needs the most help.
Truthfully, I have the same “meh” feeling about Fitzpatrick that I did about cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, whom the Bucs selected with the 11th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. I think Fitzpatrick will be a good player in the league, but I’m not ready to suggest he’s going to be a Pro Bowler.
Meanwhile, Bucs are still trying to salvage Hargreaves, who I would imagine gets his third shot to be a starter on the outside before another possible last-ditch move inside to slot corner if he continues to flounder on the perimeter. So with Evans at free safety and Hargreaves possibly inside at slot corner, the Bucs already have two players that play the positions that Fitzpatrick proved he could play the best.
I think Evans is a much better fit at free safety than strong safety. So moving him into the box to make room for Fitzpatrick isn’t necessarily the right call. And I don’t think Fitzpatrick is best suited to play strong safety for a living due to his tackling style, which is usually going for ballcarriers’ ankles, as Sikkema pointed out in this Cover 3.
If Tampa Bay didn’t have more pressing needs at the line of scrimmage I would be more than lukewarm about Fitzpatrick. But the reality is that the Bucs got killed in the trenches last year. Tampa Bay couldn’t run the ball on offense, didn’t do a great job stopping the run on defense, and couldn’t rush the passer worth a lick.
Most successful teams build their defenses from front (line) to back (secondary). Bucs general manager Jason Licht has spent two picks on defensive linemen in the last four drafts. That has to change in 2018 where the defensive line needs to be overhauled this offseason.
The reason why the Bucs had the worst pass defense last year wasn’t just due to a lack of talent in the secondary. It was due to a lack of talent on the defensive line. When a quarterback is pressured, more incompletions and interceptions occur. When a quarterback has all day to throw, more completions and touchdowns occur.
I don’t care how star-studded a secondary is, it’s tough to cover a receiver or a tight end for four or five seconds when they know where they are going with their routes and the defensive backs don’t. Now force a quarterback to get rid of the ball in three seconds or less when he necessarily doesn’t want to and that automatically helps a team’s secondary.
Of course, a great secondary can also cause a coverage sack by tightly covering all of the receivers from time to time, but more often than not, pressuring a quarterback upfront is the best way to disrupt a passing game. That’s why Licht needs to put as many premium draft resources into defensive linemen – an area that has been neglected in the draft. Drafting Fitzpatrick at No. 7 doesn’t help that cause.
Besides, the Bucs won’t wait for the NFL Draft to find a starting-caliber cornerback to help the league’s worst pass defense, and if they do that, they will surely pass on Fitzpatrick. Licht will try to re-sign Brent Grimes and is expected to sign another cornerback or two in free agency for competition, in addition to a defensive lineman or two. But while there aren’t many quality pass rushers available this year, the free agent class is rather deep at cornerback.
From what I know, and I think Tampa Bay views Fitzpatrick as more of a safety than a cornerback and the value just isn’t there at No. 7 to draft him for that reason. I just can’t see the Bucs spending the seventh overall pick on the Alabama star for that reason, and I think Licht is smart enough not to spend a top 10 pick on a player who didn’t play much outside cornerback in college simply based on a projection rather than a mountain of evidence from game film, which Fitzpatrick simply doesn’t have on the perimeter.