I have been contemplating this point of discussion and distraction as a topic for an article for a couple days now. I originally considered writing about the top three, easily discernible but surprisingly difficult to rank, so I settled on the top five. More to discuss and appreciate.
Let me start by saying, any evaluation will inevitably have an element of personal preference, but I will try to keep that to a minimum, as always. Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, obviously.
I placed as much value on stability and reliability as I did splash plays. Splash plays garner the most attention and get your highlights shown on Sportscenter, but reliable consistency is the foundation for sustained excellence.
#1. T.J. Watt:
Although this was the most obvious choice, it wasn't as clear cut as I thought after closer examination. Chasing Watt is a veteran defensive lineman still in his prime, and a young playmaker who has the potential to be the best safety in the NFL.
Watt is the total package, and a legitimate DPOY candidate. He has no discernible weakness and is the perfect blend of spectacular playmaker and well-rounded contributor. He is constantly striving for improvement and focusing on the finer points of playing the position.
Last offseason, he concentrated on hand eye coordination and utilizing it to create turnovers. In his initial two seasons, most of Watt's forced fumbles came on strip sacks. Last year, Watt became particularly proficient at punching out the ball from the ball carrier’s arms, which was a direct result of all the hard work he put into improving that aspect of his game in the past offseason. The sky is the limit moving forward for this hard working superstar.
#2. Cameron Heyward:
The son of a former NFL star renowned for his Ironhead, Cam has turned out to be the perfect fit for the Steel City. Heyward may just be the best overall defensive lineman in the league. He is a power player still in his prime, equally adept at stopping the run and rushing the passer.
If I was as tech savvy as some of my BTSC colleagues, I would attach a clip of Heyward pancaking Quenton Nelson back into the legs of his starting quarterback last year, which almost resulted in a sack. It was only a single play in a game between two of the best in the business. Nobody dominates Nelson, arguably the best offensive lineman in the NFL. Heyward did the unthinkable in the game, winning more than his share of one-on-one battles between the two. The game film does a far better job of describing Heyward's greatness than my adjectives ever could.
Heyward also happens to be the unquestioned leader of the defense and a role model for the Steelers stable of young defensive linemen. His prolonged period of sustained excellence gives him the edge as number two.
#3. Minkah Fitzpatrick:
Fitzpatrick has yet to play a full season in a Pittsburgh Steelers uniform, but already has to be considered as a top three lock. His impact on the defense was almost instantaneous. He single handedly lifted his new teammates by reducing the field of play and their responsibilities with his otherworldly instincts and feel for the game.
His unsustainable production waned slightly as the season progressed due to the opposition game planning for his presence by avoiding his section of the field. This is the ultimate sign of respect, on a Deion Sanders, Troy Polamalu, and Ed Reed type of level. Fitzpatrick is a well-rounded football player with impressive versatility. Being something the Steelers are reportedly planning to display fully this season, he is the prototypical free safety.
Given his propensity for splash plays, it wouldn't shock me to see Fitzpatrick right up there with Watt in DPOY consideration and for the number one spot on this list in 2021. Because of his short history in the league and in a Steelers uniform, I felt obligated to limit his rank on this list to where I did.
#4. Bud Dupree:
This is where the rankings got very difficult, if I am being honest. Two players deserved consideration, but I had to go with Dupree because of his lengthy resume as a Steeler. Bud is a unique player, possessing the talents to be as good as he wants to be, limited only by his own desire and willingness to work for excellence. He is an athletic specimen who finally put it all together last season by benefit of proper motivation.
Bud can use both speed and power to rush the passer, and he has always excelled at setting the edge against the run. If Bud continues to grow as an impact player this season, he will almost certainly earn himself a contract which will price him out of the Steelers reach unless a longterm deal can be achieved prior to the start of this season. I am happy for Dupree on his growth as a player, but I can't help but wish deep down it had happened a few seasons earlier.
#5. Steven Nelson:
My decision to select Nelson at this position may surprise a few people, and I totally understand. I realize that many pundits considered Nelson's running mate Joe Haden as one of the biggest Pro Bowl snubs last season, but I considered Nelson to be the best cornerback on the roster last season.
Nelson has been an interesting case study, having improved steadily every year he has been in the NFL. Last season he enjoyed the best season, in my opinion, for a Steelers corner since Ike "Hands of Stone" Taylor patrolled the secondary. Ironically, Nelson shares many of the same qualities once displayed by Taylor. Nelson is more solid than spectacular, but he does what he does with consistency incredibly well. He excels in coverage and enjoyed few opportunities for interceptions, because offenses avoided throwing to his responsibility, enjoying little success when they did.
Nelson has turned out to be the best Steelers free agent signee on defense since the aforementioned Haden. I see no reason for the ever-improving Nelson to not continue his upward career trajectory, and wouldn't be surprised to see him enjoy a Pro Bowl level season yet again.
There is my Top 5 Steelers defenders list heading into the 2020 NFL season, ranked to the best of my humble ability. Please share your rankings and thoughts in the comments below. As always, Go Steelers!