Philadelphia Eagles: Minkah Fitzpatrick is Howie Roseman’s white whale

(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) /

After a decade long search for the perfect slot cornerback, a trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick could give the Philadelphia Eagles Howie Roseman’s dream player.

If we’re being honest, the Philadelphia Eagles need a young developmental safety.

With their top three performers – top four really – all over the age of 29, and Rudy Ford a special teams only player, the Eagles only have one player on their roster under the age of 25 with starting experience at the position: Avonte Maddox.

And just so we’re clear, Avonte Maddox is a cornerback.

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While the team’s long-term forecast at the position is uncomfortably murky, as the contracts of starters Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins expire in 2019 and 2020 respectfully, safety is one of the easiest positions to replace in the NFL – as teams can pretty much find a starting-caliber safety with a mid-round pick.

Of the four safeties who earned Pro Bowl starting nods in 2018, only two, Jamal Adams and Derwin James, were drafted in the first round. The other two, Eddie Jackson and Landon Collins, were selected in the fourth and second rounds respectively, highlighting the sheer volume of safties available across the board for a team with an active scouting department.

So despite former 11th overall pick Minkah Fitzpatrick being available via trade, the Eagles should not trade a reported first-round pick to acquire the Old Bridge, New Jersey native to play safety.

However, viewing Fitzpatrick as a safety and only a safety is beyond shortsighted and disregards his most dominant position at the NFL level: slot cornerback.

Though some, unfortunately, disregard the slot cornerback position as a spot relegated for players who are too small and/or slow to play on the outside, or a team’s third-best corner, the position actually requires a different type of athlete with an increasingly in-demand skill set for a league where three-wide sets have become the league-wide base package.

Unlike on the outside, where defenders have a boundary to play off of, slot corners need to have loose hips plus agility and the processing power to cover a variable collection of players – from receivers, to tight ends, to running backs – which could run the entire route tree.

And unlike on the outside, interior receivers can run that route tree going in either direction.

In this modern NFL, finding an elite slot corner can impact a game maybe even more so than an elite outside cornerback, as offensive coordinators have become more and more comfortable moving their best players all over the field.

Howie Roseman has been looking for a player with this skill set for years.

Since taking over as general manager in 2010, Roseman has tried – and failed – numerous times to find an interior cornerback with an ability to shut down interior receivers nothing to show for it.

From Ellis Hobbs, to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, to Nolan Carroll, and most recently Cre’Von LeBlanc, the Eagles have shuffled through a dozen interior corners over the last decade, with their most consistent performer, Brandon Boykin, seeing his promising career derailed by injury.

While the team has had varying degrees of success with this motley crew of corners – with the best of the bunch, Patrick Robinson, serving as an integral piece of their Super Bowl-winning roster – none of these players have even close to the athletic gifts Fitzpatrick was graced with.

Measuring in at 6-foot-1, 207 pounds, Fitzpatrick started as a freshman in the slot for Nick Saban‘s Alabama Crimson Tide – a near-unprecedented feat for one of college football’s deepest teams. With 171 combined tackles, five sacks, and nine interceptions over 42 college games, Fitzpatrick’s production perfectly lined up with his combine measurables (4.46 40) and solidified a surefire first-round resume in time for the 2018 NFL Draft – even if his exact NFL position was up in the air.

But we wouldn’t have to wait too long for an answer, as Fitzpatrick played all over the Dolphins’ secondary as a rookie, and pretty much excelled at all of them.

Logging snaps across then-defensive coordinator Matt Burke‘s wide-nine 4-3 defense, Fitzpatrick showcased an advanced knowledge and feel for the game of football, logging snaps at outside cornerback, inside cornerback, free safety, strong safety, and even defensive line as an edge rusher (as per Pro Football Focus).

But through it all, Fitzpatrick understandably wanted some consistency.

In an interview with the Miami Herald, Fitzpatrick had a deep desire to have his position defined going into his sophomore season, as he wanted to compose his body for the rigors of another season correctly. While this is understandable, as a cornerback needs to be a whole lot lighter than a box safety, it highlights a very confusing series of events that have denigrated the Dolphins into the position they are presently trapped in.

After extending Pro Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard – a player the Eagles should also trade for (more on that here) – to a monster new deal, the Dolphins gave slot cornerback Bobby McCain his own extension to the tune of four-years, $27 million – making the 5-foot-9 University of Memphis product among the highest-paid slot cornerbacks in the league.

Now locking up a top interior performer should be lauded, especially at such a reasonable rate, but there’s a problem: Fitzpatrick is naturally a slot cornerback.

In 2018, Fitzpatrick finished out the season as Pro Football Focus‘ top-ranked interior corner – a pretty impressive mark for a 22-year-old rookie. Though he only played in the position roughly 40 percent of the time over his 944 total defensive snaps, Fitzpatrick was an absolute terror on the inside – jumping the snap in zone coverage to pick off a pair of passes – one of which he returned for a touchdown – on the way to a very impressive stat line of nine passes defended, two tackles for loss, and 80 combined tackles.

And yet, despite having not one, but two starting-caliber slot corners on their roster, the Dolphins made the, um, unique decision to move the duo to safety, with McCain taking over as the team’s free safety, and Fitzpatrick playing in the box and a hybrid strong safety/linebacker.

This clearly didn’t go over well with Fitzpatrick, or his mom, as he officially asked for permission to seek a trade after the Baltimore Raven bopped the Dolphins on their home turf to the tune of 59-10.

While some have been critical of the decision on Fitzpatrick’s part, in large part because they don’t believe a team would willingly pay the exorbitant price tag the Dolphins will ask for their future Pro Bowler’s services, I don’t personally see it that way.

No, what I see is an opportunity for a team to get a second chance on a former top-10 (ok, top-11) talent who shined as a rookie in an advanced role. With a more defined position in a scheme that plays to his strengths as a read-and-react zone slot corner, Fitzpatrick could not only become the best slot cornerback in the NFL but a unique interior swiss army knife with an ability to cover everyone from Cole Beasley, to Jordan Reed, to Alvin Kamara.

Is that optimality worth a premium draft pick – even a first-round pick? Yes, definitely yes.

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With a slew of intriguing young cornerbacks but no true star, adding a player of Minkah Fitzpatrick for the final three seasons of his rookie contract – plus a fifth-year option – is an incredible opportunity that very, very rarely comes up in the NFL. If Howie Roseman is the smart, shrewd, slot cornerback pining wheeler and dealer we all know him to be, it would be in the Philadelphia Eagles’ best interest to try to make a deal – if they don’t, the Dallas Cowboys may beat them to the punch.