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How the Minkah Fitzpatrick Deal Favors Steelers Salary Cap, Future Plans

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Pittsburgh Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick stretches during minicamp practices at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, June 8, 2022 -- ED THOMPSON

The Pittsburgh Steelers made Minkah Fitzpatrick the highest paid safety in NFL history, but it’s also a favorable deal to the organization. The deal reportedly pays Fitzpatrick at an average of $18.4 million per year over the additional four years added onto his 2022 season under contract.

That rate is higher than the $17.5 million per year average between Jamal Adams and the Seahawks, the highest rate prior to Fitzpatrick’s new deal. Other top paid safeties like Harrison Smith, Justin Simmons, Budda Baker and Eddie Jackson range from average salaries of $14.6 million to $16 million.

But each of those contracts were signed between 2020 and 2021. The 2021 NFL salary cap was at $182.5 million, but is projected to grow to $208.2 million in 2022, $225 million for 2023 and $256 million for 2024 according to OvertheCap.com.

That means an average of $18.4 million for Fitzpatrick would only constitute 8.8 percent of the Steelers’ 2022 salary cap, 8.2 percent of 2023 and 7.2 percent of 2024. All of those are lower than the 9.6 percent of the Seahawks’ salary cap that Adams took up in 2021.

OMAR KHAN’S TIMING

One of the biggest challenges for Omar Khan as the Steelers’ new general manager will be to navigate the new rates and proportions that come with the NFL’s growing salary cap. Each year as player negotiate for new contracts, the competitive markets will force the paid rates for positions to increase. How those contract negotiations proceed will set the tones for future negotiations for each position.

Fitzpatrick’s deal came at a great time for Khan and the Steelers as Fitzpatrick was the first to sign his first major non-rookie contract between the top safeties of the 2018 NFL Draft class. While safeties like Justin Reid and Terrell Edmunds signed contracts, neither were to pay at the rate of Fitzpatrick or the expectations for contracts with the Bengals’ Jessie Bates III and the Chargers’ Derwin James.

James and Bates still don’t have new contracts. James is set to play on his fifth-year extension for the Chargers while Bates received the franchise tag from the Bengals as he was a second round pick and couldn’t receive a fifth-year extension.

But Bates is reported to have no intention to play under a franchise tag for the Bengals. Those negotiations continue as Joe Burrow plans to bring Bates with him on a Las Vegas trip to help smooth things over.

Both safeties are projected to be paid around the competitive rates for the top safeties in the NFL. That means had their contract agreements come in before Fitzpatrick, they had the potential to set a higher rate that would’ve cost the Steelers more in negotiations.

FITZPATRICK’S VALUE

While Bates has been an important part of the Bengals’ AFC championship run and James has been an All-Pro, Fitzpatrick is the only NFL safety to be named All-Pro twice since he was drafted in 2018.

FItzpatrick has a legitimate claim as the top free safety in the NFL. His eleven interceptions with the Steelers are the third-most of all NFL safeties since 2019. He’s only behind Simmons with 14, Quandre Diggs at 13 and is tied with Kevin Byard.

He’s also become a one of the biggest contributors to the Steelers’ defense and helped them rank as the fifth-best defense in points and yards allowed in 2019 and the third-best defense in points and yards allowed in 2020.

The Steelers’ defense dropped to 20th in points allowed and 24th in yards allowed in 2022, but those were not because of any folly of Fitzpatrick. Injuries to Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu weakened the defensive line while Devin Bush struggled to recover from his ACL injury.

That mix of issues crippled the Steelers’ front in run defense and compromised the make-up of the defense that allowed Fitzpatrick to thrive as a ballhawk safety. Still, Fitzpatrick finished with 124 tackles to lead the Steelers and record the most tackles by a Steelers defensive back in a single season in team history.

Mike Tomlin, Khan and the Steelers still see Fitzpatrick as the best playmaker at safety in the NFL. When you can lock that kind of talent up for your roster until 2026 when Fitzpatrick will be 29 years old, you guarantee your defense a superstar talent in his prime.

Fitzpatrick could have held out the way Bates has with the Bengals and sought even more money from the Steelers in an aggressive effort to completely reset the safety market. But he didn’t, and that’s a boon to the Steelers’ future plans.

That sentiment was shared by former Steelers linebacker Vince Williams over Twitter Wednesday:

That the Steelers didn’t compromise their future salary cap and kept a superstar talent is a great first major act of Khan at general manager. It could also be a sign that another major move could be on the horizon for the Steelers with an approximate $20 million in cap space left in 2022 and plenty of salary cap space in the years to follow.

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