The New England Patriots are being linked to several players in a potential trade up. Now that they have two first round picks to work with in No. 23 and No. 31, they essentially control the entire draft board. They have the draft capital to trade up as high as No. 4 overall, and can therefore decide on just about any non-quarterback prospect they want and go up to get that player. Most have assumed if they did make that trade up, though, it would be for either a quarterback or defensive end Bradley Chubb. Both would be fine choices that fill long-term needs, but there is an alternative they can consider if moving all the way into the top-five is a bit rich for their blood. If they just want a prospect that fits their ethos and can contribute immediately, Minkah Fitzpatrick of Alabama should be a target.
Quarterback is the team’s long-term need. Tom Brady will be 41-years-old when the season begins, and eventually, he will need to be replaced. Defensive end is seen as the team’s biggest immediate need, as nobody on last season’s team even reached seven sacks. But somewhere in between is a changing of the guard in the secondary. The Patriots have cycled through two sets of starting cornerbacks from two Super Bowl teams in four years (with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner both leaving immediately after Super Bowl 49, and Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan both gone now as well). Devin McCourty has held down the fort as the team’s star safety, but he will be 31 when the season begins. So will his twin brother Jason McCourty, who has not aged quite as gracefully. Patrick Chung is 30. Eric Rowe is a free agent after the season. Jonathan Jones is a restricted free agent next offseason as well.
A reckoning is coming to the Patriots secondary, and it’s one that hasn’t exactly starred to begin with. The Patriots were humiliated on defense by the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl 51, and while most will attribute that to the unexplained absence of Butler, it’s worth noting that he is gone. If the Patriots were bad because he wasn’t playing, they should theoretically remain bad because he’s not coming back. Jason McCourty is a short-term fix in his place. They don’t have a reliable nickel corner. They are due to turn over much of the safety position in the near future.
Stephon Gilmore and Duron Harmon are the only players who seem primed to be major contributors for several more years. That means that the Patriots will need help at outside cornerback, nickel corner and safety. No team has better blurred the lines between those roles than the Patriots, who gave well over 2,600 combined snaps to Harmon, Chung and Devin McCourty last season. They play three safeties more often than any team. They let corners like Ryan and Butler cycle between the inside and outside depending on the needs of a specific matchup. They don’t just develop corners and safeties. They develop defensive backs.
That is the best description of Fitzpatrick that exists. Nobody is quite sure what position he is going to play in the NFL because nobody is quite sure what position he played in college. Nick Saban deployed him all across the defense in college: cornerback (both inside and out), safety (in the box and centerfield), and even some linebacker. He could be described as a healthier, bigger Tyrann Mathieu who doesn’t come with any of the character concerns that plagued the Honey Badger. He doesn’t quite have Mathieu’s nose for the ball, but he comes with just as much versatility.
In an increasingly diverse offensive league, that is incredibly important. Think about the various specialized weapons that will stand in New England’s way in the AFC next season. The Pittsburgh Steelers have the NFL’s best pass-catching running back in Le’Veon Bell. The Kansas City Chiefs have the best non-Rob Gronkowski tight end in Travis Kelce. The Houston Texans have a Goliath in DeAndre Hopkins. Few teams have players that can conceivably cover one of those players well. Fitzpatrick is the rare prospect who might be able to cover all of them.
That kind of versatility has been the foundation of New England’s defense for two decades. The Patriots love having players who do everything well even if they aren’t quite elite athletes. That is the one slight knock against Fitzpatrick, but that has never held back a Patriot before. Why should it now? If Fitzpatrick starts to slide down the draft board, the Patriots should consider jumping up to kickstart a necessary revamping of an aging secondary.