What makes a great player great? Is it easy to tell? Do you just ‘know it when you see it’? Is there even one universal way to be able to judge great play? How else do you explain multiple experts coming away with different opinions on different players? Talent evaluators from all around the league frequently disagree with one another on so-and-so player.
Now, what about a player like Minkah Fitzpatrick? He was a first-team All-Pro for two years running. Last year, he didn’t even make it into the Pro Bowl. What does that mean for him—even accepting that it’s generally been held that he had a ‘down’ season in 2021? Qualifiers for last year’s play aside, where does that leave him?
“He’s close. I think he’s in that [top-five] range”, Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus recently said of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ free safety, while appearing on The Poni and Mueller Show last week on 93.7 The Fan. “I don’t think he was as good last year, but he’s in that range. That’s fair. He’s close”.
That may be, but Pro Football Focus had Fitzpatrick graded dead last of all safeties who played at the highest snap threshold (approximately 1,000 snaps) out of 29 total safeties. And Terrell Edmunds was 28th. Fitzpatrick had an overall grade of 57.2 from the outlet, Edmunds 58.0. Fitzpatrick had an excellent run defense grade, but a coverage grade of 45.1, the worst of all qualifying safeties.
“It comes down to how you interpret PFF grades. A grade is just telling you, here’s how this guy produced in what he was asked to do last year, or over a period of time”, Palazzolo said. “The course of Minkah’s career has been very good, and he’s played in the slot, he’s played true free safety, and then last year moving all over the place”.
“Minkah is still very good, he’s still one of the better free safeties in the league”, he added. “Last year, I didn’t think he produced at his usual level”.
There was certainly a stretch in the first half of the season where Fitzpatrick wasn’t really able to play his game, as the Steelers’ secondary was unsettled, and that does reflect in the site’s grades. Outside of the playoff loss, his game-by-game grades in the second half of the year are much better.
In fact, if you only begin the grading from week 10 on, Fitzpatrick comes out first among 19 qualifying safeties with an overall grade of 81.2. That’s a pretty remarkable turnaround, and something to consider when acknowledging how the role he was asked to play within the defense evolved over the course of the year. The more comfortable he got in his familiar role, the better he performed.