I remember when the 2018 safety class came out. We all knew it was good, but we weren’t sure just how good it would be. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James were definite first-round selections. But what about Jessie Bates and Justin Reid? Throw in the surprise of Terrell Edmunds, a first-round pick, and a quietly solid Ronnie Harrison career, and this was—and remains—one of the most talented and interesting safety classes in recent memory.
Players like Bates, Reid, and Harrison are approaching the end of their rookie contracts; while Edmunds, Fitzpatrick, and James all have fifth-year options to consider. But I wanted to dive into this storied safety class and figure out just how each unique talent has found a home in the NFL.
We’re starting with the top draft pick: Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick, selected with the 13th-overall pick and traded 17 months later for an 18th-overall pick, was a big investment for both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins. But they each bought different things. The Dolphins grabbed a cover player, who lined up at corner four times more than he lined up at safety. It was a usage that reflected Fitzpatrick’s usage in Nick Saban’s Alabama defense. While he played the “Star” position and met with the safety group, he lined up as a corner and played man coverage at a high level. That’s what the Dolphins wanted from Fitzpatrick, and they got quality play there.
But it wasn’t what Fitzpatrick wanted out of the league. When Brian Flores took over the reins of the Dolphins defense, Fitzpatrick quickly requested a trade, asserting that a hybrid, move-piece role was not maximizing his potential. Fitzpatrick didn’t want to float between multiple positions on a then-listless Dolphins squad; he wanted to play one spot and dominate.
Pittsburgh also wanted that from Fitzpatrick. The Steelers drafted Edmunds in the first round to eventually play their deep middle safety role, but he had a long developmental arc left to achieve starting-caliber play. Once Fitzpatrick became available, the Steelers spent another first-round pick on that 2018 class and installed Fitzpatrick as their deep middle safety. In two seasons with Pittsburgh, Fitzpatrick has aligned as a “free safety” over 75% of the time, per Pro Football Focus.
Fitzpatrick got what he wanted; the Steelers got what they paid for. Fitzpatrick had five interceptions and an All-Pro bid for the Steelers in 2019 and delivered another four picks and an All-Pro bid in 2020. Fitzpatrick’s versatility and football IQ was legendary coming out of Alabama, but it’s still wild to see a college player who lived on the second level and in man and short zone coverage become an effective free safety—but that’s what Fitzpatrick has done.
Don’t get it twisted: He’s a great free safety because of those skills. Fitzpatrick isn’t a sideline-to-sideline centerfielder like Bates or Justin Simmons; he doesn’t play with elite range or ball-hawking ability, even for his high interception numbers. The structure of Pittsburgh’s defense maximizes a free safety with Fitzpatrick’s quick eyes in short zones, coverage, and ball skills. On long and late downs, the Steelers love to play Fitzpatrick as a “rat at the sticks.” Whether in man or zone coverage, dropping Fitzpatrick into that low hole at the sticks allows him to attack routes built to break just beyond the first down marker. If quarterbacks are late to recognize his descent from the roof, he can make plays on the football.
Even for quarterbacks who expect and recognize the threat of Fitzpatrick’s low-hole presence, his range and playmaking ability put the defense at a significant advantage. The Steelers have a dominant defensive line but were also third in the league in blitz rate last year. On those blitzes and on drop coverage off of blitz looks, they love to bring Fitzpatrick into the low hole to eliminate in-breaking routes and force the quarterback to hold the football; that additional half-second of the quarterback holding the ball in the pocket creates sacks.
Pittsburgh couldn’t do this without a safety rotation, and it needs that elite low-hole player to pull it off. Fitzpatrick is the straw that stirs the Steelers’ zone blitzing drink.
When the Steelers bring all of those rushers, they do leave themselves susceptible to big plays. Fitzpatrick plays an important role here as well; for a deep middle safety, he has a nice, dense build that contributes to some quality tackling efforts. Even beyond that, Fitzpatrick is a delightful hustle player, who regularly makes plays at range because his motor never stills; and he’s willing to hit. That fits the Pittsburgh identity on defense nicely.
Fitzpatrick is what the Steelers need in their secondary, and he’s awesome for them in that role. There isn’t any more to it than that for Pittsburgh, but placing him in the rankings of safeties is trickier. He isn’t asked to play true deep middle coverage as often as other free safeties, but he doesn’t play in the box as a run fill player or line up in man coverage over tight ends as much as box safeties. His role is well-suited for him but is pretty distinct across league defenses.
With that said, Fitzpatrick is around the ball a lot, is as strong of a tackler as you see on the third level of the defense, and hides tendency very well with his diverse skill set. He may not impact outside nine balls a ton, but he shuts down seam routes from that roof position. In terms of dangerous players that line up in the defensive backfield, Fitzpatrick is among the top three in the NFL, and the Steelers will likely make him the highest-paid safety in the league after he plays out his fifth-year option in 2022.