Earlier this offseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers and S Minkah Fitzpatrick reached an agreement on a four-year extension to make him the highest-paid safety in football. Once the inked had dried and the numbers became official, Fitzpatrick signed a deal to make him earn $72.988 million in new money with a new money average, $18.247 million, besting former top-paid safety Jamal Adams for first place at the position.
However, it appears that Fitzpatrick’s reign at the top of the safety earnings peak will be short lived.
According to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, the Los Angeles Chargers plan to reach an agreement with their star S Derwin James at some point prior to the start of the regular season with the “expectation” that he will surpass Fitzpatrick as the highest-paid safety in NFL history.
Frankly, it came as a surprise to many here at Steelers Depot that Pittsburgh opted to sign Fitzpatrick so quickly to a contract extension in the early stages of the offseason. Former GM Kevin Colbert often made in common practice to wait until the start of training camp before the team would begin contract discussions with upcoming free agents.
However, while it benefits Pittsburgh and Fitzpatrick to have him signed, sealed, and delivered prior to the start of camp to prevent any awkward “hold-in”, new Gm Omar Khan likely saw the writing on the wall regarding the other safeties in line for a huge pay day. Rather than having James sign first to set the market for Fitzpatrick to try and jump him for the top spot, Khan likely opted to get the deal done first so he wouldn’t have to figuratively “overpay” Fitzpatrick to try and make him the highest-paid at his position.
Instead, Khan and the front office put the pressure on the Chargers and Bengals by setting the precedent with the Fitzpatrick contract, putting pressure on both franchises to at least match, if not exceed that amount with their respective safeties in James and Jesse Bates.
Cincinnati opted to not extend Bates prior to the franchise tag deadline, almost certainly setting Bates up to hit the free agent market in 2023. James, meanwhile, will likely capitalize on the timing of the Fitzpatrick extension and try to surpass him in his next deal.
Fitzpatrick and James will forever be linked together with both being regarded as the best safety prospects in the 2018 Draft class. Fitzpatrick went 11th overall to Miami and James slid to Los Angeles at 17th overall. Their playing styles differ, with James being more of a natural strong safety/box linebacker and Fitzpatrick being a more natural free safety, but both defensive backs are highly skilled and can play a variety of roles for a defense. Now, the next step in their journey continues as Fitzpatrick has set the stage for James to try and match, if not surpass his total contract to make them the highest-paid players at their position in league history.