In a recent poll of NFL league executives, coaches and scouts, Pittsburgh Steelers S Minkah Fitzpatrick was ranked as the No. 2 safety in the NFL, behind Justin Simmons of the Denver Broncos.
“Above the neck game — he can play strong and free safety and has range,” an NFC exec said. “Started for Miami as an outside corner as a rookie. How many safeties can handle that?” An executive from an AFC team said “Minkah is the leader of the entire secondary — he controls all the checks, all the calls, controls everything,” He continued, saying “Here’s the catch: He can play man-to-man, but he’s not elite at it. He can blitz, but he’s not elite at it.”
Acquiring Fitzpatrick was one of the best moves in Kevin Colbert’s tenure, and current Steelers GM Omar Khan made sure to quickly lock him up to a long-term extension. Last season, with the run defense subpar, Fitzpatrick was tasked with making plays at the second level and racked up 124 tackles, tops among defensive backs.
Last year, Fitzpatrick took the No. 1 spot in the same poll, but after a year that lacked splash plays, he fell to No. 2 on the list. Given the state of the Steelers’ defense last season, it’s understandable why Fitzpatrick wouldn’t stand out the same as other safeties, but his value to the team last year cannot be overstated. With an inside linebacker group that often got caught up in blocks or misread the play, Fitzpatrick was crucial in making sure teams didn’t run all over the Steelers more than they already did. While his status as a ball-hawking safety shouldn’t be in question, he had just two interceptions last season, which could also be chalked up to teams not throwing in his direction as much.
With a new contract in hand, Fitzpatrick will continue to be a valuable member of the Steelers’ defense. This season, he’ll be one of the most crucial pieces if the team wants to make a playoff push, as the defense will likely have to carry a young offense throughout the slog of a 17-game season. Even if Fitzpatrick doesn’t rack up the interceptions like he did his first year and a half in a Steelers uniform, his presence alone is enough to make opposing QBs think twice before throwing in his direction. The Steelers would love if he didn’t have to be such an active presence against the run, and if Fitzpatrick has upwards of 100+ tackles again, it’s a safe bet that the Steelers’ run defense was once again lackluster.
If the run defense improves and Fitzpatrick can turn his attention back to making splash plays on passing downs, the Steelers could surprise a few teams this season and battle for a playoff spot.