Mark Madden: With the signing of Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers defense must get its money’s worth

Mark Madden: With the signing of Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers defense must get its money’s worth

After securing a four-year contract extension worth $73.6 million, Minkah Fitzpatrick is the highest-paid security. So it must be the best security.

The Steelers have the highest paid defense. It must therefore be the best defense.

In a league using a salary cap, you need to get what you pay for. It’s non-negotiable.

You might have a player who beats his rookie contract. Hopefully running back Najee Harris provides it. Kenny Pickett too, if he ever plays.

But those who receive elite money must be elites.

So if new general manager and longtime cap expert Omar Khan is as smart as you’d hope, the Steelers should at least be in the playoffs and in contention for the AFC North title.

These are not unfair expectations. It’s a results-driven business, not a popularity contest.

The Steelers offense, on the other hand, is the lowest paid in the league. (BTW, having the most expensive defense and the cheapest offense isn’t exactly a formula for success in today’s high-octane NFL.)

So if offensive incompetence translates into too few points or if the defense is on the field too often, the defense needs to overcome that. If you make the most money, do the most.

Will relying on defensive star power work? This was not the case last season.

The Steelers had (and have) a superstar at all three levels of defense: Cam Heyward on the line, TJ Watt at the forefront and Fitzpatrick at safety. But the Steelers defense finished dead last against the run and 24th overall. Yet their “elite defence” is often cited. Fanboy Horse Manure > Unpleasant Truth.

Fitzpatrick was first team All-Pro in 2020 and 21 but not last season. His tangible impact has dwindled: Fitzpatrick has only participated in four takeouts.

Fitzpatrick had an incredible 124 tackles, which could mostly be evidence of the inside linebackers’ inability to tackle. Some inferiority on the Steelers defense forced Fitzpatrick to play a more vanilla style instead of trying to make plays.

Thus, Fitzpatrick is now the highest-paid safety in NFL history. He’s no Troy Polamalu and probably isn’t the best safety in the NFL, but Fitzpatrick is pretty close. It’s his time and his turn.

But, at his new price, Fitzpatrick will be a failure if he has the same season as last year.

Fitzpatrick could have been brought in to play the final season of his existing contract. The Steelers could then have assessed the luxury of having elite security in the context the team was in and then franchised it or gave it a long-term pact. (Fitzpatrick’s long-term deal would have cost more later.)

Fitzpatrick would have been unhappy if he had been franchised. Maybe he wouldn’t have shown up. How did it go for Le’Veon Bell?

Fitzpatrick is not unworthy. Far from there.

But the most important positions in football are quarterback, cornerback, left tackle and point carrier. Watt is one of the greatest rushers of all time.

But at quarterback, the Steelers have a mate and a rookie. At cornerback, they have mediocrity, maybe worse. At left tackle, they have a fourth-round draft pick in his sophomore year.

Is it worth having the highest paid security when the Steelers are so lacking in key places?

It better be.

The defense has to do more to win games than the offense. Maybe a lot more.

It won’t be that simple.

Devin Bush was horrible last year. Myles Jack replaces another rejected Jacksonville. He can’t be worse than Joe Schobert, but will Jack be good enough?

Inside linebackers limited Fitzpatrick last season. So does Terrell Edmunds, who returns as Fitzpatrick’s mediocre security partner.

Before asking Pittsburgh last season, Melvin Ingram thought he should have been ahead of Alex Highsmith on the outside linebacker depth chart. Ingram was right. Highsmith is average.

Cornerbacks are questionable. That’s a nice way to put it.

Stars are fun. The performances and pedigree of Fitzpatrick, Heyward and Watt are beyond doubt. But last season, their excellence was not enough.

It’s still not a great defense. He won’t do much better against the run. Fitzpatrick getting more money doesn’t change anything.

Either way, you’re not paying crazy stacks of stars to earn awards, set records, and sell jerseys. You pay stars to earn as many as possible.

When Fitzpatrick put pen to paper, the stakes rose.

The Steelers just need to make the playoffs and fight for the AFC North crown.

If the NFL’s most expensive defense can’t fix the Steelers’ deep quarterback disadvantage in the division, what can?

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