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O'HARA'S 2018 DRAFT PREVIEW: Defensive backs

Minkah Fitzpatrick of Alabama has a special skillset that puts him at the top of this year’s draft class of defensive backs.

NFL teams covet versatility, and Fitzpatrick has it in abundance. Teams will decide whether to rate him strictly at safety, cornerback, or a combination of both. It’s not a bad decision to have to make.

Bob Quinn has built versatility into the Detroit Lions’ secondary through the draft and free-agent signings since taking over as general manager in 2016.

Cornerback Denzel Ward of Ohio State and safety Derwin James of Florida State are others in a solid group of defensive backs who are likely to go off the board early in the first round.

One media analyst characterized Fitzpatrick’s three-year progression at Alabama as having played on passing downs in 2015, safety in 2016 and “a little bit of everything” in 2017.

“Everything” translates into versatility – which adds value. Fitzpatrick spoke about the importance to him before his Combine workouts last month.

“I think that’s really important – so show coaches who are out there doing my drills,” he told reporters. “They know I can play multiple positions at a high level. Not just playing there, but also at a high level.”

Following is a look at how the Lions stand in the secondary, including the Lions’ draft priority, key stats from 2017 and other factors, the top 5 prospects at the position and others, and the spotlight on Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander:

Lions secondary draft priority: Not high, based on more pressing needs, but that could change if one of the top prospects is on the board with their first-round pick at No. 20.

Key stats: The Lions were tied with the Eagles for fourth place with 19 interceptions and tied with the Rams for 10th with 21 TD passes allowed. There were significant gains in both categories over 2016 – 33 TD passes allowed against 10 interceptions. Darius Slay tied Kevin Byard for the league lead with 10 interceptions.

Lions DB depth chart: Returning starters – CB Darius Slay, CB Nevin Lawson, S Glover Quin, S Tavon Wilson. CB/S Quandre Diggs. Returning depth – S Miles Killebrew, S Charles Washington, CB Jamal Agnew, CB Teez Tabor, S Stefan McClure (practice squad 2017), S Rolan Milligan (active roster/practice squad 2017).

Additions: CBs DeShawn Shead and Raysean Pringle, signed as free agents.

Bob Quinn’s DB draft history: S Miles Killebrew, a productive backup, was drafted in the fourth round in 2016; In 2017 Teez Tabor was a second-round pick, and CB Jamal Agnew was a fifth-round pick who made All-Pro as a returner. Those picks, plus free-agent signings, have produced a strong unit that has functioned well without the benefit of a consistent pass rush.

Quinn quote to note: To reporters at this year’s league meeting: “You can go right down the road, right down the roster of guys that can play multiple positions. I think that’s a really good thing for us to have. With the way the offenses are nowadays in the NFL, we need to have versatile guys that can cover. It’s a passing league, and we need to have enough defensive backs that can play multiple positions to help us.”

**Top 5 secondary prospects:

**

1. S Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama: One of the most versatile of the secondary prospects, he gets comparisons to Arizona Cardinals star Patrick Peterson for his style of play. Fitzpatrick looks the part physically of a top-tier defensive back, and he played the part most of his three seasons in Tuscaloosa. Alabama used him all over the field in 2017.

Bio/stats: Fitzpatrick won the Bednarik and Thorpe awards as a true junior in 2017. He had 18 career tackles for loss and nine interceptions, returning four of them for TDs, starting with two as a freshman in 2015.

2. CB Denzel Ward, Ohio State: Ward played in 25 games his first two seasons at Ohio State but did not start a game until 2017. As a second-year sophomore in 2016 he was the No. 3 cornerback behind Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley and still played 468 defensive snaps and was voted second team all-conference by the media.

Bio/stats: At 5-11, 183 pounds Ward’s size might be an issue for some teams. Athleticism is not, however. He lit up the Combine with a 4.32 40, 39-inch vertical jump, 11-4 in the standing broad jump and 16 reps in the bench press. In 13 games in 2017 Ward had two tackles for loss, two interceptions and 15 of the team’s 62 pass breakups.

3. S Derwin James, Florida State: He made an impression at the Combine with a 4.48 40, 40-inch vertical and 11 feet even in the standing broad jump. Those are big numbers for a 6-2, 215-pound safety.

Bio/stats: James began his career with the Seminoles in grand style as a freshman in 2015 and ended it the same way in 2017. In between, he was limited to two games in 2016 because of a knee injury that required surgery. He had 4.5 sacks as a freshman, and 11 pass breakups and 5.5 tackles for loss in 2017. He might be best suited as a box safety because of his strength as a run defender.

4. CB Mike Hughes, Central Florida: He played for three schools in three years, and the third year was the charm. Central Florida was undefeated in 2017, capping a 13-0 season with a win over Auburn in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. Hughes was dismissed from North Carolina after the 2015 season, then spent 2016 at Garden City Community College before transferring to Central Florida.

Bio/stats: Hughes played on an unbeaten team his last year in high school, and another one on his last year of college. Hughes was a high school star in North Carolina, leading New Bern to a 15-0 record and state championship in 2014. His athletic versatility showed up in 2017. He had four interceptions, averaged 34.1 yards on 16 kickoff returns and 17.8 on 13 punt returns. His 4.53 40 time at the Combine raised questions about his speed.

5. CB Josh Jackson, Iowa: Jackson arrived on campus in 2014 with the build and background to help the Hawkeyes as a pass catcher. As a high school senior in Texas he caught 24 passes for 485 yards and nine TDs. He was a full-time cornerback at Iowa, and the passes he caught – in great numbers – were thrown by opposing QBs.

Bio/stats: After a red-shirt freshman season in 2014 he was a contributor on defense for two years but did not become a full-time starter until 2017. Jackson started all 13 games and led the nation in interceptions (eight) and passes defensed (26), and was fourth with 18 pass breakups. A 40 time of 4.56 at the Combine raised questions about Jackson’s speed, but he’s a solid, well coached prospect.

Others: CB Isaiah Oliver, Colorado; S Justin Reid, Stanford; CB Carlton Davis, Auburn; CB Quenton Meeks, Stanford; S Ronnie Harrison, Alabama; S Marcus Allen, Penn State; CB Donte Jackson, LSU; S Rashaan Gaulden, Tennessee; CB Duke Dawson, Florida; S Jessie Bates, Wake Forest; CB Anthony Averett, Alabama; CB Isaac Yiadom, Boston College.

Spotlight – CB Jaire Alexander, Louisville: If Alexander made a lasting impression on NFL scouts and opponents, it was with his play as a sophomore in 2016. He started all 13 games and led Louisville with five interceptions. He went into the 2017 season tabbed as one of the top cornerbacks in the country, but his season was shortened by a knee injury sustained in the opening game. Alexander played in only six games and had one interception.

Alexander was the emotional leader of Louisville’s secondary, which he dubbed the “Tax Boys” because it would make people pay. Alexander did not lack for confidence when he spoke to the media at the Combine. He might have been buoyed by a strong performance in his workouts, which included a time of 4.38 in the 40.

“Very rare that you see a pass getting caught on me,” he told reporters. “A pass getting caught on me – it’s almost history in the making.”

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