Last week, Steelers Nation received quite the stir when Bart Scott, a former Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets linebacker, in responding to a question from Adam Lefkoe on ‘The Lefkoe Show’ (Bleacher Report) on greatness, said:
This statement incited an inspired reaction from current Steelers’ linebacker, Vince Williams (as covered by Jeff Hartman in his recent article), who challenged Scott’s view by citing the fact Troy Polamalu had more versatility than how he was positioned demonstrated. Williams also pointed out comparing the two was akin to comparing outside linebackers and inside linebackers (or middle linebackers), and argued Troy was so effective in the run and blitz game it would have been silly to stick him in the post.
Over a week later, Scott’s comments continue to be dredged up on social media, with media also covering the story. However, one question continued to plague me as the discussion raged on:
With Polamalu and Reed different players (and mostly playing different positions), how does Minkah Fitzpatrick compare to Reed after 2-3 years in the league? And could Fitzpatrick ultimately have an even better career, especially after a breakout 2019 season for the Steelers?
Firstly, let’s be fair to Reed (as one may have hoped Scott may have been to Polamalu) and acknowledge that through his first four seasons, Reed was classified as a Strong Safety, and then played out his career predominantly at Free Safety. Although, if they had both played a traditional Strong Safety position, Polamalu would have beaten him in that respect too. Equally, this positional change also leaves Reed with the advantage over Minkah Fitzpatrick of playing deep when he was both acclimated to the NFL and already a playmaking Pro Bowl and First Team All-Pro safety.
Alternatively, Fitzpatrick has played virtually his whole career at Free Safety, with some snaps at Strong Safety, and has the potential to be much more of a ‘Swiss army knife’ style player in the secondary than he is being used currently (notwithstanding the debate on where he wanted to play snaps with Miami, I believe he simply wanted out of the Dolphins).
Regardless, it’s not hard to see there are comparisons between the two in how they are used or are potentially able to be used, with some fans ready to call or have already called Fitzpatrick and Bush the Steelers’ answer to Reed and Lewis. So, to compare ‘apples with apples’ let’s look at both Fitzpatrick’s career production after two-seasons and Reed’s production (according to Pro Football Reference):
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s Career Statistics - 2 Seasons (to date):
- 32 Games, 1x Pro Bowler & 1x First Team All-Pro, 7 INTs, 18 Pass Defenses, 2 TDs, 0 Sacks
- 2 Forced Fumbles, 3 Fumble Recoveries, 1 Fumble Recovery TD
- 149 Combined Tackles (13% missed), 95 Solo Tackles, 3 Tackles For Loss
- 1 QB Hit, 25 Blitzes, 1 QB Hurry, 1 QB Pressure, 4 TDs Allowed
- 92 Times Targeted by the QB, 59 Completions allowed (64%), 754 Yards Allowed
- 12.77 Yards per completion allowed, 433 Air Yards Allowed, 321 YAC Allowed
Ed Reed’s Career Statistics - 2 Seasons*:
- 32 Games, 1x Pro Bowler, 12 INTs, 27 Pass Defenses, 1 TD, 2 Sacks
- 1 Forced Fumble, 0 Fumble Recoveries, 0 Fumble Recovery TDs
- 156 Combined Tackles, 130 Solo Tackles, 13 Tackles For Loss
- 299 Yards Allowed, 24.9 yards per completion (based on average yards allowed)
*Pro Football Reference did not record all statistical elements at this stage of Reed’s career.
In comparing these numbers, it’s important to note while snap count and deeper pass defense statistics are available for Fitzpatrick, they aren’t for Reed and so these have been included to give more insight where relevant.
So how does Fitzpatrick stack up against Reed? Both players had one Pro Bowl honor, while Fitzpatrick received an All-Pro in his second season, Reed had more Pass Defenses and Interceptions, Fitzpatrick scored two ‘pick sixes’ to Reed’s 1, with Reed recording two sacks and Fitzpatrick none. Current score: 3-4 to Reed.
When it comes to anything relating to fumbles, which in 2019 showed how lethal Minkah has become and how well he’d adjusted to the Steelers’ defense, Fitzpatrick has more forced more fumbles, made more fumble recoveries and scored more fumble recovery touchdowns. Score update: 6-4 to Fitzpatrick.
Here’s where it gets interesting. As expected, their stats differ substantially in terms of tackles and pass defense, which is to be expected to some degree given their positional designation differences at this point in their respective careers. Reed had more tackles than Fitzpatrick, with a difference of just 6 tackles, made more solo tackles and had more tackles for a loss. Score flips: 6-7 to Reed.
In terms of pass defense, Reed allowed a miserly 299 yards to Fitzpatrick’s 754 yards, while Fitzpatrick allowed almost half the number of yards per completion at 12.77 yards to Reed’s 24.9 yards. Score update: 8-7 to Reed.
Finally, in comparing Pro Football Reference’s ‘Average Value’ (AV) rating for each player - calculated by ‘the weight sum of seasonal AV scores, 100% of the player’s best season, plus 95% of his 2nd-best season, plus 90% of his 3rd-best season, plus 85% of his 4th-best season, etc’ - Fitzpatrick received ratings of 4 (2018) & 19 (2019) in his first two seasons, with Reed scoring a 7 and 11 (and 15 in his third season). Final Score: 8-8 tie.
However, it’s these statistics which demonstrate Minkah’s acclimation to the NFL and rapid progression into being a top tier safety, and potentially a Hall of Fame (HOF) safety, with Reed recording just 6 more tackles and allowing a much higher average of yards despite being closer to the line of scrimmage and playing against the run or short passing downs, than that of Fitzpatrick. On the flip-side, Fitzpatrick’s high tackle count and much smaller average yards allowed per completion demonstrate his potential to have a stellar career, and match or better Reed’s career excellence. Fitzpatrick’s chances look even better when you consider his 0.11 faster 40-yard time (4.46) compared to Reed, his bigger weight and extra two-inches of height which makes a difference when defending the pass.
So, what does Fitzpatrick need to do in year 3 to continue chasing the HOF and his pace of matching or bettering Reed’s career excellence? Bettering Reed’s key third season statistical outputs is a good place to start:
- 16 Games, Made the Pro Bowl & Achieved First Team All-Pro, 9 INTs, 17 Pass Defenses, 1 TD,
- 2 Sacks, 3 Forced Fumbles, 2 Fumble Recoveries, 1 Fumble Recovery TDs
- 78 Combined Tackles, 64 Solo Tackles, 6 Tackles For Loss
- 358 Yards Allowed, 39.8 yards per completion (based on average yards allowed)
Does Minkah Fitzpatrick have to put up these numbers in 2020 to have a career which reaches that of Ed Reed? Not necessarily. But if he did, it would be great news for both Minkah and the Steelers.