To make it to the NFL you have to be unbelievably competitive. You don’t get to the point where you are making millions without knowing what separates you from the rest. So, when someone says there is a player(s) who are better than you, it is natural for you to feel slighted.
This already happened this offseason when ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, who is polling executives, coaches and scouts, started ranking players by position. He caught the snarl of Cam Heyward when he listed him as the 5th best interior defensive lineman. Now, he might be catching the scorn of Minkah Fitzpatrick as he listed the Top 10 safeties.
Before we get into the Top 10 list, here is some background information on what Fowler has been doing the past week:
Here’s how our process worked: Voters gave us their best 10 players at a position, then we compiled the results and ranked candidates based on number of top-10 votes, composite average, hundreds of interviews, research and film-study help from ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen. In total, more than 50 voters submitted a ballot on at least one position, and in many cases all positions. We had several ties, so we broke them with the help of additional voting and follow-up calls with our rankers. Each section is packed with quotes and nuggets from the voters on every guy — even the honorable mentions.
The objective is to identify the best players right now for 2022. This is not a five-year projection or an achievement award. Who are the best players today? Pretty simple.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the Top 10:
1. Justin Simmons — Denver Broncos
2. Minkah Fitzpatrick — Pittsburgh Steelers
Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 6
Age: 25 | Last year’s ranking: 1
Fitzpatrick is the NFL’s highest-paid safety for a reason — he’s a franchise pillar for the Steelers. Over four seasons, Fitzpatrick has 37 pass deflections, 13 interceptions, 350 tackles and two first-team All Pro nods.
“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?”
Pro Football Focus was not kind to Fitzpatrick, giving him a 59.8 overall 2021 player grade, and NFL Next Gen Stats tracked 25 receptions against on 43 targets as the nearest defender. But Fitzpatrick did lead all defensive backs with 124 tackles.
Fitzpatrick narrowly beat Simmons in last year’s voting, but he was coming off two seasons of high-level ball production. Numbers don’t tell the whole story this year, but Fitzpatrick finished last season with two interceptions and eight passes defended — down from four and 11, respectively, in 2020.
“Minkah is the leader of the entire secondary — he controls all the checks, all the calls, controls everything,” an AFC defensive coach said. “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.”
3. Kevin Byard — Tennessee Titans
4. Derwin James Jr. — Los Angeles Chargers
5. Budda Baker — Arizona Cardinals
6. Jessie Bates III — Cincinnati Bengals
7. Harrison Smith — Minnesota Vikings
8. Marcus Williams — Baltimore Ravens
9. Antoine Winfield Jr. — Tampa Bay Buccaneers
10. Jamal Adams — Seattle Seahawks
As you saw above, Fitzpatrick was listed as the game’s top safety heading into 2021. So, what changed? Well, ESPN cites a lack of turnovers/pass defenses as the main reason, even quotes someone who suggests Fitzpatrick doesn’t excel in man coverage or blitzing.
That’s all well and good, but are we supposed to just ignore the fact Fitzpatrick, who is a safety, led the Steelers in tackles last season? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how Fitzpatrick’s game had to change and evolve to help the defense. With the 32nd rank run defense, he couldn’t just patrol the deep secondary and pick off passes like he did in his first two seasons in Pittsburgh. Instead, he had to make sure he was in the box and making tackles in the second level.
On top of that, teams weren’t throwing the ball as much. No, not just avoiding Fitzpatrick, but avoiding the aerial attack, and why not? If a team can’t stop the run, why wouldn’t you just keep running it until they stop it. And in 2021, the Steelers defense didn’t stop it very often.
All of this combined changed Fitzpatrick’s approach to playing defense, but thankfully the Steelers didn’t see it as a decrease in production. If they did, they wouldn’t have made him the top paid safety in the game this offseason. Instead, the organization knows 2021 is likely an anomaly, and if the defense in front of Fitzpatrick can do their job in 2022, he will do his in the back half of the secondary.
But what do you think? Is Minkah right to be No. 2? Is that even too high? Should be be No. 1? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below, and be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the rest of the offseason.