Since Nick Saban took over at Alabama there has been he has ushered in a number of very successful NFL talent. Whether it’s Julio Jones, Marcell Dareus, Mark Ingram or C.J. Mosley, Alabama has given the league a steady diet of great players. But there are also some players who are poised to add their names to that list of great Alabama players in the pros. Guys who are finally going to have an opportunity to show what they’re made of and continue to show the country that the University of Alabama has the best crop of NFL prospects.
Kenyan Drake is one of those sleeper hit players that has come from Saban’s teams. He was never the number one back at Alabama and suffered through many unfortunate injuries. But when he was healthy and on the field, Drake was a difference maker for the crimson tide. This swiss army knife was able to excel in the return game on defense and also catches out of the backfield. When Lane Kiffin was the offensive coordinator, he would have a number of different plays for Drake out of the backfield and had him even line up in the slot.
Since he was drafted in the third round back in 2016, Drake has steadily integrated himself into the Miami Dolphins offense. Starting out as the third back, he was able to work his way into a bigger role with his carries increasing every year. 2018 was his most productive season in the league as he posted career highs in rushing touchdowns, receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. All of that was done while splitting snaps with Frank Gore. But in 2019 Drake is unquestionably the number one back now that Gore has left for Buffalo. And judging how young the offense is for Miami, Drake will be relied on heavily to produce.
Sticking with the Dolphins, defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick seemed to fly under the radar during his rookie season last year, as he quietly put together a really solid campaign. Another player on the Dolphins roster who was extremely versatile, Fitzpatrick’s rookie numbers were quite impressive. He totaled 80 tackles, nine pass deflections and two interceptions. Normally you see young players in the secondary struggle a bit in their first season. But if you watched Fitzpatrick at Alabama you’d know he was capable of playing right away.
In his freshman season, the New Jersey native started immediately and in an important role in Saban’s defense. Throughout his career, he lined up at both safety and corner and dominated in both areas. He was able to build the type of resume that helped him become the 11th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Now that Fitzpatrick has a whole season under his belt be sure to look at him as one of the emerging defensive backs in the NFL. Especially now that he is paired with defensive-minded head coach Brian Flores who has had a great history of producing solid players in the secondary like Stephon Gilmore and the McCourty twins.
It’s insane to believe that this will be O.J. Howards third year in the league and it feels as if he hasn’t been talked about at all as one of the best young tight ends in the league. Howard has shown consistent improvement over his first two seasons in the NFL. What’s impressive about how well he’s played is the inconsistency of the quarterback play. Whether it was Jameis Winston or Ryan Fitzpatrick, Howard found a way to produce. Last year Howard posted 34 receptions for 565 yards and five touchdowns in just 10 games played.
Another area of Howard’s game that can be praised is his improved blocking. When he was at Alabama, one of the knocks against Howard in his early years of playing as a freshman was that he didn’t have the size or tenacity to become a good run blocker. But over the three years he played at the UA, Howard was able to throw on the muscle and improved every single year and even turned the run blocking “knock” into an area of strength.
In 2018 Calvin Ridley added himself to the list of excellent young receivers from Saban’s Alabama teams. Ridley Came onto the scene fast by catching six touchdowns in the first four games of the season. He seemed to able to carry over some of the success he had during his career at UA, by using his speed and quickness to create separation between him and the defender. Although he did tail off a bit as the season went on, he was still one of the most productive rookies of his class.
Now with a full season underneath his belt, Ridley is in a position to raise his level of production this upcoming season. It is no secret that the Atlanta Falcons have one some of the best personnel on the offensive side of the ball. With players like Devonta Freeman, Mohammed Sanu, Austin Hooper, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, these guys will only open up opportunities for Ridley to thrive. Playing with a guy like Jones definitely makes a huge difference. For most of the early portion of Ridley’s career, he will seldom face a double team.
By the time the 2019-20 season gets rolling, if all goes accordingly opposing teams will surely have these four guys circled and underlined on their scouting reports. And they will usher in a new age of dominant players coming from Tuscaloosa.
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Patrick Dowd is a Reporter for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter, via Pat_Dowd77