Bama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick an outside-the-box option for Colts at No. 3
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – There were positional needs exiting 2017, glaring ones, which is why the Indianapolis Colts are perched on the No. 3 rung in the April NFL Draft. A franchise with a robust roster doesn’t meander its way to 4-12.
A legitimate pass rusher who keeps offensive coordinators up at night. Inside linebackers. Wide receivers. Another tight end would be nice. And, oh yes, the offensive line.
Then, general manager Chris Ballard and his personnel staff created another need when they decided not to re-sign running back Frank Gore. It was expected and necessary considering Gore turns 35 in May, but his exit must be countered with a suitable replacement.
Also, the cornerback room probably needs replenishing. Rashaan Melvin, the Colts’ top cover man a year ago, apparently will be allowed to test his value on the NFL’s free-agent market next week. The 28-year old is looking for long-term financial security – which he should – and there’s every likelihood that happens elsewhere, not in Indy.
“When they actually get to a point where they hit free agency, well, then you’ve got to let the market play out,’’ Ballard said at last week’s NFL Scouting Combine. “You’ve got to determine, ‘Is he within our price range of where we see his value?’
“We’ll let it play out.’’
Generally, when a player hits the open market, he doesn’t return.
That in mind, the Colts must address a cornerbacks room that, minus Melvin, lacks anything resembling experience. The three prominent returnees under contract – Quincy Wilson, Nate Hairston and Kenny Moore II – are heading into their second seasons. It’s conceivable Pierre Desir, eligible for free agency, will be re-signed.
The total focus of how Ballard might invest the third overall pick in the draft has been on either Penn State running back Saquon Barkley or North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb.
Barkley would represent a versatile, game-breaking backfield option for Andrew Luck. Chubb would be the pass-rush presence that’s been missing since Robert Mathis was tearing up pass protections.
An outside-the-box option? Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama’s Swiss Army knife. The 6-1, 205-pounder was whatever Nick Saban needed him to be: cover safety, in-the-box safety, slot corner, outside corner. At the Combine, he ran a 4.46 40-yard dash and posted a vertical of 33 inches.
In short, Fitzpatrick did nothing to jeopardize his status as one of NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock’s draft’s top-5 prospects, joining Barkley, Chubb, Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson and Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea.
“The key to Minkah Fitzpatrick is: what is he?’’ Mayock said. “I think he could play all six defensive back positions – both corners, both safeties, nickel (corner) and dime linebacker. He’s the only guy I can say that about.
“Now, is that a good thing or a bad thing? I look at (his versatility) as a positive.’’
In today’s NFL, defenses routinely are in sub packages – an additional defensive back or two – nearly 60 percent of the time.
Fitzpatrick’s versatility would be invaluable. And he knows it. In 42 games at Alabama, his all-round skills generated 16.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 24 defended passes and nine interceptions, four of which he returned for touchdowns.
Before working out for scouts at the Combine, Fitzpatrick offered a preview of what was to come.
“I think it will show people I have the hips and feet of a corner, also the IQ and tackling ability of a safety,’’ he said. “That’s really important to show coaches who are out there doing my drills. Then I think going into the draft, they know I can play multiple positions at a high level.
“Not just playing there, but also at a high level.’’
Fitzpatrick viewed the Combine experience as an opportunity for NFL talent evaluators “to devalue you. They try to find reasons to not pay you, you know what I’m saying?
“So I’m trying to give them reasons to pay me. I’m trying to validate all the reasons why I’m one of the best players in this draft class.’’
Even so, Fitzpatrick is battling history. Over the last 20 years, only eight defensive backs have been chosen with a top-5 pick. There have been five since 2002, each with the fifth-overall selection.
If the Colts go off script and opt for Fitzpatrick, he would complement a safety group that includes 2017 first-round pick Malik Hooker, Matthias Farley, Clayton Geathers and T.J. Green.
“If you’re a defensive coordinator and take him in the top 10,’’ Mayock said, “you’ve got to have a plan. What is he? Is he my safety, is my corner, is he my nickel? Or is he a piece that I can match up week-to-week against a big wideout or tight tend?
“How you use him is ultimately going to determine the value of him.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.