Derwin James and the Los Angeles Chargers have just reset the safety market after giving James a 4-year, $76.4 million extension that averages over $19.1 million a year. That is nearly more than a million more per year than Steelers free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who came in with an $18.4 million extension in June from the Steelers. So, after the Steelers and Fitzpatrick reset the market in June, James does it two months later.
There were few moves that made more sense than the Steelers getting Fitzpatrick signed early. It freed up time to talk to Chris Boswell and Diontae Johnson in their pursuits for new deals. It was clear the Steelers wished to keep all three of those players, and they have successfully negotiated contracts with all three. That would not have been possible if not for Fitzpatrick signing so early on in the offseason process.
The Steelers never did that under Kevin Colbert. That was an Omar Khan audible to make something happen early on before the other safeties in the market, notably Derwin James and Jessie Bates, reset the market. It now seems that Bates is on skates in Cincinnati as he holds out. Bates is franchise tagged but has devowed that he will not report until he is paid. The Fitzpatrick deal threw everything the Bengals wanted to do for a loop.
James now made sure to base his salary on what Fitzpatrick got in June. Instead of the Steelers chasing what James may have signed for, it was the opposite way around. That is exactly what is crucial for Khan as he works on the job. Fitzpatrick’s contract could potentially look like a bargain in the next calendar year. It already is no longer the most lucrative deal in the NFL among safeties. Bates is in line for a monster contract. Even players like Jordan Poyer, Adrian Amos, and Jimmie Ward will be handsomely paid.
It may not be quite on the level of Fitzpatrick’s money, but the NFL is coming around to paying top-tier safeties at this point. James and Fitzpatrick are just two of those examples. Bates will very likely be the third of those examples. The Fitzpatrick contract could have a very similar feel to the Patrick Mahomes contract for the Chiefs. While that is a 10-year monster contract, Mahomes is only the fourth highest-paid quarterback in the NFL. Fitzpatrick has a real argument for being the best safety in football, and yet, he could find himself in the same place not far from now.
It is a model that has worked for franchises like the Steelers in the past. However, the earlier elite players can get signed, the better those deals often end up looking years later. Even the Browns with Myles Garrett have followed that philosophy as they inked him early. When Khan inevitably has to sign another elite player the Steelers could have to another extension, the Fitzpatrick blueprint is the exact way they should handle things.
James’s deal only proves the point that Khan was correct to push hard for Fitzpatrick to sign early. It kept an elite player on the team, and for the Steelers, it was at a cap-friendly and salary-friendly rate. In his first rodeo, that is about as big of a win as Khan can get.