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Alabama in the Pros

Grading teams former Tide players fell to in first round of 2018 NFL Draft

Tim Heitman - USA TODAY Sports

In an event that had five quarterbacks taken in the first round, University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban saw four young men that he had an opportunity to nurture and develop all be selected Thursday night at the NFL Draft inside AT&T Stadium via ESPN.  

Despite Minkah Fitzpatrick not going in the top-10, the three-year starter at defensive back joined defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne, linebacker Rashaan Evans and wide receiver Calvin Ridley as a first-round pick – giving Saban 26 first-rounders (most in SEC) at Alabama since 2008.  

Based on how things turned out, all four guys landed in good spots and it will be interested to see how each one is used at the next level. With the second and third rounds airing tonight, yours truly of Touchdown Alabama Magazine grades the fit of Tide players that went in the first round. 

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Miami Dolphins, 11th overall 

GRADE: B 

If this year’s draft was not so big on quarterbacks, Minkah Fitzpatrick would have been selected within the first five picks. The 6-foot, 204-pounder has speed (4.46, 40-time) and length (31 ¼”) to make up ground in the secondary. Hailing from Old Bridge, N.J., Fitzpatrick was never a physical tackler at Alabama, however, the former five-star was a secure tackler with ball skills. 

Miami finished 16th in pass defense in 2017, allowing 3,603 yards with 26 touchdowns to nine interceptions. While it has Cordrea Tankersley and Tony Lippett at cornerback, Fitzpatrick’s build suits him better on the outside than at safety. A pair of Southeastern Conference alums in Maurice Smith (Georgia) and Trae Elston (Ole Miss) also make up the back five as safeties. 

It would be fun to watch Fitzpatrick victimize Tom Brady, Sam Darnold (should he start for the New York Jets), or the winner between AJ McCarron/Josh Allen for the Buffalo Bills, nevertheless, we will just have to see what happens. Overall, he landed in a good spot. 

Fitzpatrick had nine career interceptions for the Tide – including four returned for touchdowns – which is a school record. He won the Chuck Bednarik (college defensive player of the year) and Jim Thorpe (college football’s top defensive back) for his performance last season. 

Da’Ron Payne, Washington Redskins, 13th overall 

GRADE: A+ 

Looks like the Baltimore Ravens aren’t the only team building a defense with University of Alabama alums. After taking both Jonathan Allen and Ryan Anderson in last year’s draft, the Washington Redskins decided to add Da’Ron Payne to the mix with the 13th overall selection. 

Seeing how the team was last in rush defense, grabbing Payne was the perfect move. 

Washington surrendered 134.1 yards a game in 2017, as opposed to the Tide – who allowed 95 yards rushing with Payne (78.23 y/g in three years, 2015-17). A native of Birmingham, Ala., Payne had his best season in 2017 with 53 tackles and a team-high eight quarterback hurries. 

Ezekiel Elliot of the Dallas Cowboys and Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants are two talented running backs, but no one likes to see Payne coming at them at high speed.  

The combination of Allen and Anderson against the pass with Payne stuffing the run, should allow the Redskins to create a lot of problems in the NFC East.  

Rashaan Evans, Tennessee Titans, 22nd overall 

GRADE: A 

He was a three-time Super Bowl champion at linebacker for the New England Patriots and with his first pick on Thursday, Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel chose Rashaan Evans. 

He studied Evans intensely during Alabama’s pro day back in March, and Vrabel decided to select him with Wesley Woodyard (31) and Brian Orakpo (31) up in age. Tennessee also lost Avery Williamson to the New York Jets in free agency after three productive seasons. 

Evans gives the franchise an instinctive, physical inside linebacker. 

He shared the team lead in tackles with Ronnie Harrison (74) at Alabama in 2017, while anchoring the group in tackles for loss (13) and placing second in sacks with six. 

Despite battling a groin injury last season, Evans was a major factor in getting the Crimson Tide back to the College Football Playoff National Championship and defeating Georgia. 

He not only supplies Tennessee with another run stuffer, but he also provides the team another coverage player in the passing game. The Titans finished 25th in pass defense, giving up 3,828 yards with 27 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. 

Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons, 26th overall 

Grade: A 

Although it lost to New England in Super Bowl 51, the Atlanta Falcons had the National Football League’s most dominant offense in 2016. The departure of wide receiver Taylor Gabriel made it take a step back, but overall seeing its struggles in 2017 was very concerning.  

While it chose to keep Steve Sarkisian at offensive coordinator, the Falcons found Gabriel’s replacement in Calvin Ridley. An elite route runner, the Florida native was able to maneuver against some of the better defenders in college football. His 224 career receptions stand second to former Tide standout Amari Cooper and he ended his career with 2,781 yards and 19 scores. 

Pairing Ridley with Julio Jones creates more of a reason for Alabama football fans to purchase tickets to see the Falcons. Jones, who has established himself as one of the biggest faces in the league right now, has a chance to mentor someone that could have a Hall of Fame tenure. 

The addition of Ridley gives Matt Ryan no excuse for this franchise to not have a Super Bowl championship to its name soon. Atlanta now has Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Austin Hooper, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman and Ridley at its disposal.  

Stephen M. Smith is the managing editor and senior writer for Touchdown Alabama Magazine.  You can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @CoachingMSmith.

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