Can Steelers All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick win NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2020?
It’s a loaded question. Of course, in theory, any defensive player in the league is eligible for the award. And Fitzpatrick is coming off an exemplary 2019 season.
The Alabama product had five interceptions, a forced fumble, two defensive touchdowns and 57 tackles in 14 games with the Steelers after coming over from the Dolphins for a 1st round pick.
Despite the protestations of CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco, Minkah Fitzpatrick is one of the best players in the league and should be one of the stars of a Steelers defense that should challenge for the top spot in the NFL this season.
In an interview with 93.7 The Fan this morning, NBC Sports’ Peter King labeled Fitzpatrick as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. King makes the case that with a full year to learn the Steelers system under belt, Fitzpatrick will be even better than he was in 2019, saying “With a year knowing this system and especially a system that features the safety so much, he’s not going to be good, I think he’ll be great this year.”
Fitzpatrick certainly has the talent, and if he can repeat his numbers from 2019, the stats to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He’s currently listed as one of the favorites by William Hill, sitting at 40/1 odds, behind teammate T.J. Watt and a handful of others. But one thing beyond his control may have the final say, and that’s history. Only five safeties have ever won the award since it was first handed out in 1971.
You may recognize one of the winners, Troy Polamalu, who won the award in 2010 had seven interceptions, 11 passes defensed, a touchdown, one forced fumble and 63 tackles in 14 games while leading the number one ranked Steelers defense back to the Super Bowl. He’s the most recent safety to take home the award. Before him were Bob Sanders in 2007, Ed Reed in 2004, Kenny Easley in 1984 and Dick Anderson in 1973 (who was sandwiched between two Joe Greene DPOY awards). Sanders put up linebacker-esque numbers with 97 tackles, 3.5 sacks, two picks and six passes defensed, leading a top ranked scoring and third overall Colts defense in 2007. Before Sanders, Ed Reed was the first safety winner in 30 years, taking home the award in 2004 after leading the league in picks with nine and adding three forced fumbles, two sacks, 17 passes defensed and 78 tackles. 1984 winner Kenny Easley played in an era before tackles or passes defensed were official stats, but managed to lead the league in interceptions and defensive touchdowns with 10 and two, respectively.
In the history of the award, it has gone to linebackers 16 times, a defensive end 13 times, nine times to defensive tackles, six to cornerbacks and only five times has it been awarded to safeties.
In other words, you need to have a monster season as a safety to win the award. Fitzpatrick certainly proved he can put up gaudy numbers, but he’ll have to outshine fellow defensive stalwarts and teammates Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt, as well as beat out stars like Aaron Donald and last year’s winner Stephon Gilmore to take home the win.
Can Fitzpatrick win the award? Absolutely. Will he? History isn’t on his side. But if he can put up the same kind of numbers across a full season for the Steelers in 2020, the voters will have to be on notice. Expect him to make a strong case.