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Labriola on the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade

Ready or not, here it comes:

• "Loves ball, lives ball."

• That's the first sentence under the sub-head "Strengths" in the pre-draft analysis of him that appeared on in the run-up to the 2018 NFL Draft. That makes Minkah Fitzpatrick the kind of player this Steelers defense needs more than anything else. A deeper dive into the kind of person and professional he is makes the trade to acquire him a smart move.

• To recap the action, the Steelers acquired defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick from the Miami Dolphins earlier this week in exchange for their first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, plus two other moves that essentially involved the teams swapping a couple of picks in similar areas of the draft. The Dolphins get the Steelers' fifth-round pick in 2020, and the Steelers get the Dolphins' fourth-round pick in 2020; and Miami gets the Steelers' sixth-round pick in 2021, and Pittsburgh gets Miami's seventh-round pick in 2021.

• The historical significance of the deal is that a trade made by the Steelers leaves them without a first-round draft pick for the first time since 1967. Just to complete the historical circle, the Green Bay Packers used that pick, which was the ninth overall, to select Boston College center Bob Hyland, primarily a backup offensive lineman for five teams over 11 seasons in which the highlight was being a part of the Packers' Super Bowl II championship team as a rookie.

• Anyway, the point is that was a long time ago, before Chuck Noll, before Bill Nunn, before Dan Rooney assumed control of the day-to-day football operations and decreed that such personnel moves would cease immediately because the way he saw it, the only way to build a championship team was through the draft.

• Now, let's delve a bit into Minkah Fitzpatrick's history.

• His high school coach told the story of winning a state championship, to which Fitzpatrick contributed significantly, and relatively early on the morning after the game the coach started calling players to thank them for their contributions and congratulate them again on their accomplishment.

• He called Fitzpatrick first, and asked if his call woke him up. No, was the answer. But you sound out of breath, the coach said. That's because I'm on the track doing some speed work, Fitzpatrick answered.

• Alabama doesn't often find the need to venture north of the Mason-Dixon Line in search of skill-position players, but Nick Saban was willing to make an exception when it came to that wide receiver/defensive back from Saint Peter's Prep in New Jersey. Fitzpatrick not only was good enough to get an offer from Alabama, but he was good enough to win a starting job as a freshman at Alabama, and he was good enough to hold off the competition and keep that job for each of his three seasons there.

• As a freshman, Fitzpatrick intercepted two passes and returned both for touchdowns to help the Crimson Tide finish 14-1 and win the National Championship Game over Clemson during which he contributed two passes defensed. As a sophomore, Fitzpatrick intercepted six passes and returned two of those for touchdowns, but the 14-1 Crimson Tide lost to Clemson in the National Championship Game. By 2017, opponents got wise and stayed away from his area of the secondary, and so he had just one interception and seven passes defensed on the way to winning another championship ring with Alabama finishing the season at 13-1. And Fitzpatrick also played special teams for the Tide and had 22 career tackles in coverage.

• That's two championships in three seasons, a 41-3 overall record, and recognition from Saban as "the best leader I ever coached."

• Typically, a player with Fitzpatrick's skill-set, which is to say a guy who is 6-foot, 204 pounds and runs a 4.46 in the 40-yard dash; a guy who can cover like a cornerback; who can track and make plays on the ball if lined up as a safety; who's extremely competitive and has a history of showing up big in the biggest games; who has awareness in zone coverage to make loads of plays; who's able to stick a foot in ground and drive to the ball; who attacks the line of scrimmage in run support and welcomes physical challenges; and who is a dangerous blitzer off the edge, would be a slam-dunk top-10 pick in whichever NFL Draft he chose to enter.

• But since Fitzpatrick lasted until the 11th overall pick in 2018, let's take a look at what happened with the 10 selections before him.

• Four of the 10 choices were quarterbacks in what was supposed to be one of the best groups at the position since the 1983 group sent John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly first to the NFL via the first round and then to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Another of the picks ahead of Fitzpatrick was a guard picked by the Colts in a too-little, too-late attempt to protect Andrew Luck. Another was a right tackle to pair with left tackle Joe Staley to protect Jimmy Garoppolo. Another was Saquon Barkley. Another was OLB Bradley Chubb. Another was three-down inside linebacker Roquan Smith. And the 10th was cover cornerback Denzel Ward.

• There should be little doubt about the Steelers' need for a player like Fitzpatrick, because in 2018 their defense tied a franchise record for fewest interceptions in a season with eight, and beyond the interceptions it's the number of times the Steelers pass defenders don't make plays on the football. Through the first two games this season, they have no interceptions and two passes defensed on a combined 72 pass attempts.

• The most oft-repeated objection to the trade for Fitzpatrick has to do with the surrender of a No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. The opposition points to Ben Roethlisberger being out for the rest of the season because of the need of surgery on his right elbow and automatically assume the Steelers will crater as a result and therefore be picking close to the top five in that upcoming draft, which would be a good position to consider adding their next franchise quarterback.

• My contention is really twofold: While I absolutely respect what Roethlisberger brings to the table as a starting quarterback and acknowledge he is Hall of Fame-caliber, I just don't believe these Steelers are a 5-11 team with Mason Rudolph as the starter in his place for the rest of the season. While it's premature to make any grand predictions about winning the AFC North or squeezing into the playoffs without Roethlisberger, I just don't see the bottom falling out as it would have to for the Steelers to finish with a pick in the top 10 of next year's draft.

• And for argument's sake, let's say they did finish 5-11 and had the fifth overall pick, which was Tampa Bay's record as the owner of that pick last April. Picking fifth overall in 2018, in that supposedly great year to be needing a quarterback, the choices were Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, Lamar Jackson, and Rudolph. In terms of talent and fit within this offensive scheme, I like Rudolph the best from that group of four. And the Steelers already have him.

• Having Rudolph, and with Roethlisberger already saying he plans to attack his rehabilitation and return to play out the two years remaining on his contract, and with the Steelers likely knowing more about the specifics of his injury and the surgery that's going to be required to fix it, I think it's premature to assume the team would be in the market for a quarterback with a pick in the top five-to-10 region of the 2020 NFL Draft.

• What they probably would be looking for instead would be a versatile defensive back who can make plays on the ball, who has a history of interceptions and returning those interceptions for significant yards and/or touchdowns, who is a hard worker and a leader, who approaches his business as a professional.

• They would be looking for a guy exactly like Minkah Fitzpatrick. Who by the way is just 22 years old, who already has played 18 NFL games to give them a decent idea of what he might become, and who is under contract through the 2021 season at a total of $5.645 million.

• Where in the world could they find a deal like that?

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