Fitzpatrick’s skills may force NFL teams to rethink position

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Minkah Fitzpatrick understands the value of his skill set.

At 6-foot-1, 201 pounds, he hits like a safety. His speed, hip movement and feet might make him more tailored to cornerback.

So the Alabama star is spending this weekend explaining to NFL scouts he can excel at either, both or some combination of the positions.

”It’s a different kind of position, kind of like a combination between safety and corner,” said Fitzpatrick, describing the slot corner spot he played in college. ”I like to play both safety and corner, so I think slot corner is optimal for my abilities.”

If true, Fitzpatrick would be one of the rarest commodities in football – a tweener with an actual fit.

Traditionally when players at the NFL’s annual scouting combine are explaining what position suits them best, it’s because team executives aren’t sure where they should play and the player’s draft stock sinks.

But Fitzpatrick’s physical gifts could make him a trend-setter in a league that has become increasingly more pass-happy and places a premium on versatility.

He was recruited as a true cornerback, moved to slot corner before the 2015 season, won the starting job and never relinquished it. Coach Nick Saban was so impressed he usually paired Fitzpatrick on the opponent’s top receiver, one-on-one.

It didn’t take long for Fitzpatrick to make an impact.

After being selected to the SEC’s all-freshman team in 2015, he earned first-team All-American honors in 2016 and 2017.

Now he’s off to the NFL, where teams are trying to figure out what Saban once did – the best place for Fitzpatrick to play.

”I think he could play all six defensive back positions. Both corners, both safeties, nickel and dime linebacker,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said Saturday. ”He’s the only guy I can say that about. Now, is that a good thing or a bad thing? I’ve had a couple of coaches say to me, `Hey, is he a difference-maker? Is he a nickel? Where’s his ball production?’ He had six picks two years ago, but only had one this year. But I look at (his versatility) as a positive.”

Mayock’s sentiment may explain why Fitzpatrick appears to have a slight edge on his competition right now. He’s projected to be a top-five pick.

Some expect Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, a true cornerback, to be selected in the top 10 with Florida State safety Derwin James the only other defensive back tabbed for the top 20.

The workouts in Indianapolis, which conclude Monday, will help determined the actual pecking order in April.

But one thing working in Fitzpatrick’s favor: work ethic.

While growing up in New Jersey, he sometimes helped his father fix trucks.

After the family’s home collapsed during Hurricane Irene in 2011, Fitzpatrick helped his parents rebuild.

And when the Catholic high school he attended provided peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to students who couldn’t afford school lunches, Fitzpatrick ate them up.

So when he arrived at the combine, less than two months away from possibly hitting a multimillion-dollar jackpot, the reality finally hit.

”It’s really crazy,” Fitzpatrick said. ”I remember the second I got here, I was laying in bed, looked up at the ceiling and just started smiling.”

Yes, it’s been a long trek here for Fitzpatrick and his family.

Yet he hasn’t forgotten his blue-collar roots, his humble perspective on life or his passion for football. It’s served him well, so far.

”I think he’s going to go out there and run like a corner, have the size of a safety, and if you’re a defensive coordinator and take him in the top 10, you’ve got to have a plan,” Mayock said. ”What is he? Is he my safety, is he my corner, is he my nickel? Or is he a piece that I can match up week to week against a big wideout or a tight end? How you use him is ultimately going to determine the value of him.”

For more NFL coverage: https://Hometeaminsider.com and https://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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