2018 NFL Draft: Alabama DB Fitzpatrick, FSU’s James bring star traits

1. FS Minkah Fitzpatrick
6-0 1/8, 204, 40 time: 4.46
Projection: First Round

Fitzpatrick won a national title in Pop Warner, state title at St. Peter’s Prep in New Jersey and leaves Alabama with a pair of rings. His coaches universally laud Fitzpatrick’s leadership and ability as a reason his teams have been of championship caliber.

A versatile defensive back who played cornerback and safety, plus running back and wide receiver, in high school, Fitzpatrick started 38 games at Alabama and was a two-time All-SEC and All-American pick for the Crimson Tide. He also was named the Chuck Bednarik Award winner and Jim Thorpe (best defensive back) winner in 2017 despite playing through a tender shoulder, recording 60 tackles, 8.0 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and declaring early for the NFL draft.

Fitzpatrick is a football-loving sponge who spent extra time learning his role and the responsibilities of others on the Alabama defense. He can fit at cornerback if the scheme is right but because of his instincts, vision and experience as a hybrid defensive back, versatility should be viewed as an asset and not a detriment.

No moment is too big for Fitzpatrick, who returned four of his nine interceptions at Alabama for touchdowns and also blocked a pair of kicks. He flips his hips and runs any direction with ease, smoothly tracking receivers without locking eyes with the quarterback. Plays bigger than the program lists and wants all the responsibility coaches will give, including blitz packages and aligning at linebacker in sub defenses. Never outworked and when he makes a false step, Fitzpatrick makes up for it with his wingspan.

Scouts picking nits to come up with a weakness point to his smallish frame and possible durability concerns, but others praise his hyper-aggressive playing style.

2. S Derwin James
Florida State
6-2, 215, 40 time: 4.47
Projection: First Round

Natives of Central Florida have been telling tales of James and his rare abilities on the football field for the past 10 years. And it didn’t take long for the five-star recruit to show off his skills to a more national audience once he arrived at Florida State as one of the most hyped recruits in recent memory.

As a true freshman safety, James finished second on the team with 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and four passes defended to earn multiple Freshman All-American honors. He was on the fast track to the NFL, but then injury struck as he suffered a torn lateral meniscus in his left knee early in 2016, missing almost all of his sophomore season.

While he returned in 2017 with obvious rust, James started to shake the hesitancy and improved throughout the course of the season, finishing with 84 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and 11 passes defense and returning to the top of draft boards.

James is a freaky athlete for his size, displaying elastic joints and excellent foot speed to handle various responsibilities on the football field. For the Seminoles, he did everything, logging snaps at cornerback, linebacker and safety, showing off his range and versatility across the formation. He is also one of the best blitzers in this draft class with his initial burst and finishing acceleration.

While the athleticism is what will get him drafted high, James still has room to grow as a football player with improved discipline and mental awareness needed, especially in coverage. He is rough around the edges in areas, but the natural athleticism and “want to be great” attitude are traits that NFL coaches want to work with on a daily basis. James will be one of the first defensive players drafted in the first round.

3. FS Ronnie Harrison
6-3, 214, 40 time: 4.63
Projection: First-Second Round

A high school quarterback and safety who grew up in the shadows of Doak Walker Stadium, Harrison never heard the magic words from Florida State during the recruiting process. After initially committing to North Carolina, he wound up choosing Alabama over LSU.

Harrison had two interceptions as a key backup as a freshman in 2015 and worked into the starting lineup as a sophomore with 86 tackles and two interceptions, starting all 15 games. He started 14 games as a junior in 2017 (74 tackles, three interceptions) and was named second-team All-SEC before opting to enter the NFL draft early along with defensive backfield mate Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Harrison is not equipped to walk down and cover slot receivers and few expect him to win a footrace with outside receivers, but not many wideouts will volunteer to cross the field in front of Harrison. He played a dual role at Alabama despite being listed as a free safety and his game screams strong safety when it comes to an NFL projection.

Harrison is a heat-seeking missile looking to plow ballcarriers out of their cleats but not the type of player who can be tasked with playing a centerfield role. He’s aggressive, but this can be a downfall against play-action and misdirection, and Harrison is not confident or controlled when tasked with checking a tight end or running back in space.

4. FS Justin Reid
6-0 ½, 207, 40 time: 4.4
Projection: Second Round

Reid landed at Stanford by way of the same Louisiana high school that produced running back Eddie Lacy and Landon Collins as well as Reid’s older brother, NFL safety Eric Reid. A strong performer in the classroom as well, Justin Reid also fielded offers from Harvard and Notre Dame.

Once at Stanford, Reid saved his breakout season for 2017 before declaring for the NFL draft with one year of eligibility remaining. He was a Pac-12 First Team selection and All-American with 99 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and five interceptions for the Cardinal.

Reid has top-end speed (4.4 40-yard dash) for the position and good enough ball skills to be a difference-maker as a centerfielder, running a zone or man defense with equal capability. Top communicator with intelligence and was praised by Stanford coach David Shaw for being a coach on the field. Football-first leader with the emotional maturity and character to start as a rookie.

Teams capitalize on his aggressive nature and coaches will need to enforce the balance between attack mode and coverage discipline depending on his role in the NFL. Because of his versatile skill set and experience, Reid could be used as a nickel package dynamo and linebacker/safety hybrid. He matches up well with backs and tight ends and has blitzer qualities off the edge.

5. FS Jessie Bates III
Wake Forest
6-1 1/8, 200, 40 time: 4.5
Projection: Second-Third Round

A two-time all-state safety in Indiana, Bates was a three-star recruit who considered collegiate baseball and also played basketball. Only Iowa and Wake Forest took a serious look at Bates because of his nine-interception senior season in high school.

He provided the Demon Deacons more of the same as runner-up defensive rookie of the year in the ACC (100 tackles, five interceptions) after redshirting in 2015. Bates started nine games (all at strong safety) as a redshirt sophomore in 2017 and had 79 tackles with one interception. Bates, who has experience on special teams coverage units and as a punt returner, elected to forgo his senior season to enter the 2018 NFL Draft.

A hammer hunting for a nail, Bates is eager for contact and started 20 games in two seasons before turning pro. He’s not a finished product and should be viewed as an ascending talent, but that also means teams should expect some growing pains. He sees the path of running plays before blocks develop and could be in the opponent’s backfield regularly, but he must be more discipled to avoid being rope-a-doped by NFL coordinators.

Bates is physically underdeveloped and could build the NFL prototype body in a professional environment. His instincts, speed and aggression will attract NFL defensive coordinators who will likely want their coach and general manager to pull the trigger on Bates in the first two rounds.

6. SS Kyzir White
West Virginia
6-2, 218, 40 time: 4.62
Projection: Fourth Round

White followed the identical path set by his older brothers on the Emmaus-to-Lackawanna-to-West Virginia path. Unlike Kevin (2015 first-round pick) and Ka’Raun (2018 prospect), Kyzir gravitated to defense where he starred as a safety. He joined the Mountaineers in 2016 and became the starting “SPUR” defender, a hybrid linebacker/safety in West Virginia’s 3-3-5 defensive package.

Kyzir White set career-bests as a senior and finished among the team leaders with 94 tackles and three interceptions.

A highly-alert player, White is always on the prowl with the versatile skill-set that allowed him to play the run and drop in space vs. tight ends, backs and receivers. He has the athletic range and play speed to chase down ballcarriers from across the formation, taking quick angles and keeping himself free from blockers. White loves to throw his body around and looks to strike through his target.

Scouts are not certain White can hold up against the pass or in his ability to move in reverse and cover NFL offensive skill players. If he develops coverage skills, White will be a long-time pro. If he doesn’t, White might be left without a natural position as he tries to fit as either a box safety or undersized linebacker. Nonetheless, White will be a special teams standout in the NFL.

8. SS Terrell Edmunds
Virginia Tech
6-0, 217, 40 time: 4.47
Projection: Fourth Round

One of three brothers to play for the Hokies, Edmunds was a three-star recruit of high school who wound up on the field as a redshirt freshman. He comes from a family of athletes with father, Ferrell a former third-round pick of the Dolphins and mother, Felecia, a college hurdler. Oldest broth Trey signed with the Saints after the 2017 draft. Brother Tremaine is a first-round linebacker prospect in 2018.

Edmunds played at a different position each of his three seasons with the Hokies, moving from cornerback as a freshman to rover as a sophomore and free safety in 2017, when he made 59 tackles, defended six passes and intercepted two passes. Edmunds showed the ability to play in the tackle box as an eighth defender against the run, and for that reason, some scouts believe he projects as a strong safety in the NFL.

Because of limited suddenness and recovery speed, Edmunds could struggle in coverage, especially against savvy route-runners in space. He holds his own on long routes with building speed over distance. He acquired a reputation as a jack-of-all-trades in college leaves him as a master of none at the NFL level and more of a backup or special teams ace.

However, his ability to play three positions as well as contribute to special teams will make him a nice value pick for someone. An ideal situation for him would be to land with a team that understands his strength is in helping support the run and plays a zone defense.

9. FS Armani Watts
Texas A&M
5-11, 202, 40 time: 4.49
Projection: Fourth Round

A high school quarterback who moved to safety as a senior and played some wide receiver, Watts was a four-star safety who had his pick of top-tier colleges.

Watts moved into the starting lineup as a freshman, earning 42 career starts and displaying the ability to make big plays. He was responsible for forcing 16 turnovers in four seasons, picking off 10 passes while forcing a half-dozen fumbles. At the time of his last career game, Watts was the only active FBS player with at least 300 tackles, 10 interceptions and five forced fumbles. He also showed the ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage, finishing with 24 tackles for loss, many on screens that he blew up with a combination of instincts and burst.

Watts is a good athlete and moves with fluidity. He has the speed to range from boundary to boundary and make plays but some knock him for a tendency to overpursue and miss tackles. There is concern with durability based on Watts’ many minor injuries. But his production, 16 total takeaways, two blocked kicks in 42 career starts, is undeniable.

10. FS Godwin Igwebuike
5-11, 213, 40 time: 4.44
Projection: Fifth Round

As befits a player who will earn his degree from Northwestern, Igwebuike is a rung above intelligent. Upon committing to the Wildcats, coach Pat Fitzgerald gave Igwebuike the choice of playing running back or safety, the positions Igwebuike played in high school. He chose safety and was in the starting lineup by the end of his freshman season, going on to make 43 starts for Northwestern.

He finished with 324 career tackles, largely in part because he was used as an eighth defender in the box. That played to his strength of defending the run. He also played on special teams, giving him another avenue into the NFL.

Igewbuike’s skill set projects best to strong safety and physically he’s imposing between the lines. Questions persist about his ability to cover receivers in space, drive on balls in front of him and consistently make tackles against shifty backs on the flanks.

His best chance to stick on an NFL roster at his career’s beginning might be with a team that uses primarily zone coverage and lets Igewbuike feel his way following his instincts. Scouts don’t think he has the speed or athleticism to make up for false steps and also panned him for dropping interceptions that a former offensive player should catch. Ultimately, his ability to contribute on special teams could determine if he lasts on a roster.

11. FS Quin Blanding
6-2, 207, 40 time: 4.63
Projection: Fifth Round

A five-star recruit who starred at quarterback, running back and wide receiver in high school, Blanding was also regarded as the top safety in his senior class of 2013.

The Cavaliers have turned out some notable defenders in the last 25 seasons. None of them — not Ronde Barber, not Chris Long, not Ahmad Brooks, and not even Jamie Sharper, who held the school record for tackles — made as many stops in a career as Blanding.

A four-year starter at free safety, Blanding finished second on the team in tackles each year and wound up with 495 tackles, sixth in ACC history and tops all-time among ACC defensive backs. He was a first team All-ACC pick as a senior after making 121 tackles and four interceptions.

Blanding’s stats suggest one player and the tape shows another. While Blanding makes a ton of stops against the running game, his work against the pass isn’t quite as solid despite above-average range.

Instincts and suspect tackling habits are alarming considering tackles are his production calling card. Blanding has trouble anticipating routes or concepts with any consistency and as the last line of defense too often widens areas of the zone for the quarterback by guessing what’s coming..

While Blanding has a good frame and proved to be amazingly durable, starting all 49 games of his college career, it’s unlikely he’ll ever become an NFL starter. A backup and special teams role seems to be his ticket to the NFL.

12. FS Jordan Whitehead
5-10, 198, 40 time: 4.52
Projection: Fifth Round

Two penalties shy of a 2,000-yard rushing season (35 touchdowns) as a high school senior, Whitehead Whitehead clearly knows his way around the football. He was the top recruit in the state in 2015 and had no desire to leave the state for Alabama or Michigan or Notre Dame.

Whitehead gave up the dream of being the next Curtis Martin or Tony Dorsett as a freshman and was rewarded as ACC Defensive Newcomer of the Year with 109 tackles, six for losses, seven passes defensed and an interception. In 2016, Whitehead made 65 tackles in nine games before his season was ended early with a gruesome right arm injury, but was still named second team All-ACC. Last year, Whitehead drew a three-game suspension to start the year and played in the last nine games, finishing with 60 tackles, five passes defensed and an interception.

Whitehead has lightning fast feet and carries his weight like a college basketball point guard, smooth moving laterally and explosive north-south. He is smallish for a free safety, but is very quick and willing to get physical.

While he possesses good ball skills and has the smooth movements of a cornerback, scouts also say he has trouble recognizing route combinations and takes false steps. There’s also character and health to consider here. He sat out the first three games last year due to a suspension and missed the last three games in 2016 with an injury. But if Whitehead can keep things between the lines, he has the athletic ability and will to be a productive player and even contribute on offense or in the return game. He averaged nearly 9.0 yards per carry at Pitt with five touchdowns.

13. SS Dane Cruikshank
6-1, 209, 40 time: 4.41
Projection: Sixth Round

After starting all 12 games in 2016 as a boundary cornerback, Cruikshank made a switch to safety last year. The change paid dividends as he made 75 tackles, including 5.5 for loss, and defended eight passes. Cruikshank also intercepted three passes and forced a fumble. His numbers and level of play were all better than 2016, when he made 60 tackles, intercepted a pair of passes and defended seven others. The former JUCO star offers excellent speed for a strong safety and has good ball skills, along with a willingness to hit. He could help a team as a nickel back.

Teams will look at Cruikshank’s speed, ball skills and his build, and see a guy they can put on a tight end in some situations. But they might need to pick those spots, as there was a reason the Wildcats moved him from cornerback. In 2016, Cruikshank was flagged nine times and also had his share of mental busts that led to touchdowns and bands playing. However, his stock is on the rise after a good showing at the Combine – including 4.41 in the 40-yard dash — and there is talk that he could jump above his projection.

He definitely hits like a safety and in a league hungry for hybrid defensive backs, Cruikshank find a professional home earlier than expected on draft day.

14. SS DeShon Elliott
6-1, 210, 40 time: 4.58
Projection: Sixth Round

Recruited in a heavily contested Texas battle with TCU and Texas A&M, the Top 20 safety wound up with the Longhorns after playing more linebacker in high school.

After playing mostly in a backup role for two years, Elliott blossomed into a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award in 2017, picking off six passes. He recorded interceptions in three straight games, becoming the first Longhorn to accomplish that feat since Earl Thomas in 2009.

Elliott also finished the year with 63 tackles, 15 passes defensed and 8.5 tackles for loss. He was a first team All-Big 12 pick and returned two interceptions for TDs, averaging 26 yards per return.

Elliott makes the most sense for a team which needs a “box” safety instead of a cover-oriented player. He’s set on a tightly wound frame and is too stiff to get on top of receivers stretching the field vertically. He plays to the 4.6 40 time and scouts consider him too vulnerable to underneath routes to consider at free safety.

Some even dismissed his interceptions of a year ago as the result of gifts, rather than going up and taking balls away from receivers. But Elliott is willing to engage physically with tight ends and understands football angles. Elliott is sharp and understands what’s in front of him. He can also help as a blitzer in the right scheme. He could be a great value pick in the right system.

15. S Siran Neal
Jacksonville State
6-0, 206, 40 time: 4.56
Projection: Seventh Round

Neal was an all-state wide receiver in high school and made the move to defense as a freshman at Jacksonville State.

After playing safety during his first two seasons, he played linebacker in 2016 before a switch to corner in 2017. He excelled at ‘backer and corner enough to receive first-team All-Ohio Valley Conference honors in both seasons. Neal became just the fourth player in Jacksonville State history to earn an invite to the Senior Bowl.

Neal’s versatility will be intriguing. He held his own as a weak-side linebacker at 206 pounds in 2016 (80 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, five passes defended and one interception) before making the move to corner. For a converted receiver, Neal embraces the physical aspect of the game. He excels in press coverage, getting his hands on receivers early and disrupting routes. He’s an excellent tackler, capable of delivering the big hit, but also wraps very well and is under control in the open field.

His speed is good but not great. If he doesn’t get the initial punch in press he has a tendency to panic and get grabby. The small school background and lack of a true position will raise questions in draft rooms. His position may change depending on the team drafting him and its scheme. He could end up being a slot corner/box safety hybrid because he may not have the long speed to play outside corner or high safety. At minimum, he’ll be able to contribute immediately on special teams.
–Field Level Media