Knowing that he’ll be in Watt’s cleats… ahem, shoes… sooner than later, Fitzpatrick said the situation had his attention.
“I’m talking to [Watt], just getting a feel for how the organization is going about it,” Fitzpatrick shared in a September 9 press conference, just hours before Watt and the Steelers came to an agreement.
The Steelers exercised Fitzpatrick’s fifth-year option this spring, which will make him the highest-paid safety of the 2018 NFL draft class at $10.612 million (per OverTheCap) in 2022. Fitzpatrick’s salary this season is $2.723. Both years are a fully guaranteed salary.
In the 2020 offseason, Watt also had his fifth-year exercised, which he was scheduled to play on paying a cool $10 million for the 2021 season. When the Steelers signed him to a new contract on September 10, the terms of the fifth year adjusted to $1 million. Oh, and let’s not forget about the hefty $35 million signing bonus (per OverTheCap).
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Fitzpatrick’s Market Value
If the Steelers want Fitzpatrick in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future (why wouldn’t they?!), there are a couple of options: Let him play on his fifth-year option next season and extend his contract before he hits free agency in 2023 or do as they did with Watt and give him a new contract/extension this coming offseason.
Like Watt, Fitzpatrick will not want to go into the 2022 season without a long-term deal. It’s risky business. Fitzpatrick would have absolutely zero leverage in negotiations with Pittsburgh if a devasting injury were to occur while playing on the last year of his contract.
What could a long-term deal for Fitzpatrick look like? You need only consider Seahawks’ Jamal Adams, who became the NFL’s highest-paid safety in August. Spotrac notes Fitzpatrick’s market value as $63.543 over four years ($15.886 APY), a contract that would put him second to Adams.
Fitzpatrick will likely demand more than that. Will he get it? That’s up to Fitzpatrick.
Avoid the Tag
An alternative would be the dreaded franchise tag, as the Steelers did with (now former) linebacker Bud Dupree in 2020. The projected franchise tag tender for a safety in 2022 is $13.543 million and could increase to $16.543 million in 2023. There’s a whole fun formula you can read all about at OverTheCap but projected tender figures are “based on future salary cap estimations and are subject to change when a future salary cap is made official.” According to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, the NFL and NFL Players Association agreed in May to raise the cap to a maximum of $208.2 million for the 2022 season.
Though tags shell out a massive amount of money, it has its detractors. Because the tag is a one-year contract, it doesn’t offer lasting financial security. Furthermore, the salary figure is based on the position group and not the individual player. As players before him have, Fitzpatrick could argue he’s worth more than the $16 million tag payout.
Tagging Fitzpatrick could get messy, and it’s best the Steelers avoid that situation at all costs. No one wants another Le’Veon Bell nightmare on their hands.
Playing for That Sweet, Sweet Salary
It’s a proven fact that Fitzpatrick is one of the NFL’s premier safeties. The bar has been set, and he’s not a player willing to settle; only surpass. When Fitzpatrick came to Pittsburgh in 2019 via a very un-Steelers-like in-season trade with the Dolphins, quarterbacks learned quickly to avoid throwing passes in his direction. Five interceptions in seven games — one returned for a touchdown — will do that to a signal-caller.
The threat that Fitzpatrick’s mere presence posed caused quarterbacks to struggle. When they did throw the ball his way, only half of the targets were completions. Last year — his first full season with Pittsburgh — Fitzpatrick added four more notches to his interception belt.
Though Fitzpatrick is under the Steelers’ control through the 2022 season, he’ll be playing this season as if he wants more — because he does.
If a defensive back forces a quarterback to hesitate or adjust, that player is worth every red cent. That player is Minkah Fitzpatrick.