One of the biggest debates among the NFL Draft community right now is determining who the top safety prospect in this year’s class is. Two names immediately come to mind: Alabama’s do-it-all Minkah Fitzpatrick and Florida State’s hard-hitting Derwin James.
Earlier in the week, I polled the question to Twitter to see the response from the fans. After 24 hours and nearly 400 votes later, the poll was still at a 50/50 split, with a slight edge to Minkah. Through this quick poll, my point that the title of S1 is extremely controversial was proved correct. You can see the final results for yourself below:
STF follower Jake Schyvinck @JSchyvinck13 thought that “the two are very close as overall talents. However, I like Fitzpatrick as someone you can put in a lot of different spots. This isn’t saying Derwin can’t do multiple things, but Fitz can blitz, cover the slot, and be in a single high safety spot.”
So, why exactly are Fitzpatrick and James the best safeties in the nation? Why does this argument continue to exist with less than two weeks until draft day? These questions and more will be answered, but before we get into the nitty-gritty analysis, it’s important to know each player’s background
Fitzpatrick was born in New Jersey to a family of seven with an intense drive and work ethic. Even when Hurricane Irene left his home in ruins and the family endured financial struggle after struggle, Fitzpatrick’s focus never wavered on football as well as grades. He was offered scholarships by 25+ universities, but ultimately chose to go to Alabama due to its championship-caliber atmosphere and habit of sending starting-level defensive backs to the NFL. Fitzpatrick is also the first member of his family to graduate from college. In his junior year, Minkah propelled Alabama to Nick Saban’s sixth championship as head coach while receiving both the Jim Thorpe Award (given to the best DB in the nation) and the Bednarik Award. The only two other players to be honored are Charles Woodson and Patrick Peterson.
James had a different upbringing. Ever since his childhood days playing in Pop Warner leagues, Derwin was coveted as a physically gifted difference-maker on the football field. Nicknamed “Ford Tough” by his father for his unrelenting playstyle and toughness, James has also been hit by a car three different times and walked away from all occasions without injury. By his freshman year of high school, he had already received a scholarship offer from Florida State, the school he eventually committed to in 2012. After his senior year, he was rated the no. 1 safety in the nation and the no. 5 overall prospect in the country. He became an instant starter at FSU. After a torn meniscus forced him out of action for most of 2016, James was granted a redshirt for his sophomore year and played the full 2017 season healthy. He was also nominated for the Thorpe Award.
Now that you better understand the personal side of each player, let’s delve into how they perform on the tape in order to answer the million-dollar question: who is the better safety prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft?
First, we’ll take a look at how they performed on paper. Each player’s statistics from the 2017 college football season are below:
Minkah Fitzpatrick: 60 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 interception, 7 passes defended
Derwin James: 84 tackles, 1 sack, 2 interceptions, 11 passes defensed
Stats don’t lie, but they also don’t tell the entire story either. In order to give a truly accurate answer to our question, we’ll have to analyze in-depth each player’s strengths and weaknesses. Ready?
Let’s start with Fitzpatrick. I have no problem labeling Minkah as the most fluid defensive back in the draft. His versatility at Alabama was also impressive. While he doesn’t have a true position on the field, he is best suited for a free safety role in the NFL, although he has experience playing in the nickel. His Swiss Army knife ability can largely be attributed to his premium speed: Fitzpatrick blazed through the forty-yard dash at the NFL combine, clocking officially at 4.46 seconds. That’s not his only strength, though. Fitzpatrick showcases tuned instincts, great ball skills (nine interceptions with the Crimson Tide), and blitzes effectively off the edge.
Also worth noting is Fitzpatrick’s football intelligence. Teammates recognize and appreciate Minkah’s dedication to the game. Since he was a freshman, Fitzpatrick has tried to lead by example and is obsessed with details. He’s a diligent student of the film room that sets goals for himself at the beginning of the season and reaches them. It has paid off: that laser focus has translated into superstar play against some of the toughest teams in the nation.
In the case of James, strength is, well, a major strength in his game. A prototype of the pro league’s top safeties, Derwin is one of the hardest-hitting prospects of this class and emulates qualities similar to Kam Chancellor. His intensity complements the aggressive manner in which he attacks the football. When he’s not in coverage, he’s just as disruptive while blitzing. Just check out this hit on Louisville quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. His closing speed coming out of the secondary is nasty and he makes sure to put down his opponents hard. Most importantly, he has the fiery personality and right attitude to win big games at the next level.
But, in my opinion, the most important aspect of James isn’t the generational playmaking ability, it’s his leadership skills and command of the locker room. He was the most vocal defender on the field at Florida State and when he speaks, players listen to him and take what he has to say to heart. These qualities can be franchise-changing in the NFL for teams set to undergo the rebuilding process. To have a rookie come in and immediately establish a culture is rare, but Derwin checks all the right boxes in order to accomplish exactly that.
While there aren’t any glaring, draft stock-changing issues with either player, both Fitzpatrick and James have areas of their game that they can improve upon.
When watching Fitzpatrick, I noticed he can a bit overaggressive and too anxious about getting to the football at times. His patience is already great, but learning to let the game flow to him instead of trying to force it is just as beneficial. He’s also not a true safety or cornerback, so his position at the next level is up in the air. Fitzpatrick isn’t small, but he’s not big either so he can be absorbed by bigger assignments.
One area James could work on his anticipation. He needs to go through his reads faster and trust his instincts. Too often, early hesitations lead to blown plays. James can also be a little slow to react on some plays, leading to sluggish footwork. When backing up the play, he can be a bit drifty. While his coverage abilities are undeniably some of the best in his class, James does have a tendency to laser focus on the receiver and ignore the progressions of the quarterback.
Minkah Fitzpatrick is my no. 1 overall ranked safety, but definitely not by a long shot. While I think Derwin James has the best raw potential out of the two to become one of the best safeties at the next level, Fitzpatrick is more versatile and his technique is more sound. His work ethic, attention to detail, and studious personality signify a player that doesn’t take any shortcuts and a leader in a different way than James. Pro-like experience in a winning environment at Alabama and positive experiences under the brightest of lights also convinced me to declare Fitzpatrick as the best safety prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Do you agree? Tell me what you think on Twitter at @Snack_TimeFS or drop a comment on this article down below. To view my rankings for this year’s defensive back class, click here. To view my database complete with strengths, weaknesses, draft projection, and player comparison for 2018’s top cornerbacks and safeties, click here.
Cole Topham is the lead editor for snacktimefantasy.com and covers the MLB and NFL. He enjoys watching his opponents suffer as he defeats them week after week in his fantasy football/baseball leagues.