Meet Alabama's Next Minkah Fitzpatrick: Xavier McKinney

Photo: © Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

In the 2018 NFL Draft, Alabama CB/S/DB/football savant Minkah Fitzpatrick was selected with the 11th overall pick by the Miami Dolphins. When it happened, many viewed it as a great value -- the steal of a Top-10 player outside of that range. Lauded for his versatility, perhaps Minkah was discounted for a lack of a true position. Either way, Alabama had just lost a Top-10 caliber talent, a player so disciplined, hard-working, and intelligent that he was dubbed "Little Saban" during his final season at Alabama. Even for a factory like the Crimson Tide, Fitzpatrick was going to be difficult to replace.

They did it anyway. And they did it with Xavier McKinney.

Now, McKinney isn't exactly Minkah, and he never will be. He doesn't even play the position Minkah played in the base defense: in his final season with the Tide, Minkah filled the "Star" role in Saban's defense, which meant he occupied the overhang, a flexible position that fluctuates among the identities of linebacker, nickel corner, and box safety. Sure he was called a safety; he wasn't. He played over the tight end in pro-style sets and over the #2 or #3 in trips. He flexed into MLB in dime packages and snuck up as the end man on the line of scrimmage against tight and nasty alignments. He was everywhere.

McKinney was a more traditional strong safety in 2018 for the Tide, despite tipping the scales at roughly the same size as Minkah did in his final season with the Tide. McKinney takes half a field in split zone looks on early downs; he was joined by Deionte Thompson in 2018 and 2019 film shows Jared Mayden in that deep role. The Star role is more clearly filled by Shyheim Carter, an impressive safety prospect in his own right, who lives up near the line of scrimmage.

But in dime packages -- long and late downs -- McKinney rolls up closer to the line. And when he rolls up closer to the line; when he's in man coverage over slot receivers; when he's checking tight ends in the contact window; when he's blitzing off the edge; when he's blowing up screens and closing downhill on stretch runs -- well, he's doing what Minkah did, in the seasons right after Minkah left, to a fantastic -- maybe not comparable, but a fantastic -- degree of efficacy.

When you look back on Fitzpatrick's evaluation coming out of college -- we'll lean on Kyle's 2018 scouting report for this exercise -- you're struck by how many analysts loved Fitzpatrick's ball skill and comfort in coverage. That's what Kyle called Minkah's best trait: his ball skills.

Ability to pick up football in air is top-notch. Quick reaction and hand eye coordination allows hands to get on balls and prevent him from getting eaten up....Violent hand swipe to break triangle of receiver's hands

Ball skills also get a big check mark for McKinney, who was fifth in the SEC last season with 10 PBUs.

That's off-man coverage against Hunter Renfrow, who was about as staunch an assignment you could draw in pure man coverage in college football last year. It's important to remember that the player we just saw, the player we're evaluating, is considered a safety at this juncture of the evaluation process. That quality of man coverage is not typical for NFL safeties.

And that's what made Minkah special, exciting -- a sky-high ceiling prospect when he declared: the versatility. Again, as Kyle wrote:

Minkah Fitzpatrick is a terrific blend of skills to play all over the field...Defensive chess piece capable of being moved around the entire field. Effective pressure player from the slot. Capable of locking up in man to man against most receivers. Vertical zone coverage and comfort in a robber role are all plus qualities.

With McKinney, we have another taste of that, another glimpse. As I said above, Carter plays the Star role that Minkah mastered, but he plays it in large part due to his intelligence, his play recognition, his toughness. Carter's the brains of the defense, which isn't to take away from McKinney -- it's just to say that Carter's situational awareness is maximized in the short areas of the Star role, where his average agility is protected. McKinney, who can run and hit with the best of them, is just fine as the Tide's base strong safety. That's the luxury of Alabama, as it were: having multiple players who can fill a key position in your coverage shell.

But we know that McKinney brings versatility, even if he doesn't play the star role. As a matter of fact, across the course of a game, the course of the season, he may even play more roles than Minkah did, because of his deployment in subpackages. It's on third down that he's brought to the line, where he blitzes and sniffs out screens and matches slots and tight ends in man; it's on first and second down that we frequently see him in a deep half or even a deep middle zone, reading and relating to route concepts and filling alleys with flow. We didn't get that as much with Minkah.

The flip side of the coin is true: there are fewer reps of McKinney in man coverage, and far fewer reps of him in man coverage against the opponent's top receiver. That's why McKinney's not exactly Minkah: what Minkah gave you in true man coverage -- corner-like ability -- I can't tell you McKinney has. At least, not yet. Whole lotta season left, fellas.

But when No. 15 flies into the backfield for yet another TFL (6.5 in his sophomore season; 5.5 for Minkah), it's hard not to flash to No. 29. McKinney is Alabama's next great safety prospect, joining not only Fitzpatrick, but Eddie Jackson, Landon Collins, and HaHa Clinton-Dix. Of that much I'm certain.

What I'm almost ready to say is that he is Alabama's next skeleton key, next solution, next panacea. Not only the player you never have to take off the field, but the player who takes one of your opponent's players off the table. Minkah has gone for a first-round pick twice in his career now, and that's because Minkah is limitless; so, too, is McKinney. He's a surface barely scratched.