What Minkah Fitzpatrick’s Record-Setting Deal Means for the Future of NFL Safeties

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonContributor IJune 16, 2022

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In the near future, a safety will sign a deal worth $20 million annually. Maybe not this offseason, but Minkah Fitzpatrick's market-setting deal sets the stage for it to happen in 2023.

On Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Steelers signed Fitzpatrick to a four-year, $73.6 million extension, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. Since the AFC North club acquired him from the Miami Dolphins in September of 2019, he's recorded 203 tackles (144 solo), 27 pass breakups and 11 interceptions (two pick-sixes). The 25-year-old is also a two-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro.

The safety market has grown rapidly over the past year.

Last offseason, Justin Simmons (four years, $61 million), Jamal Adams (four years, $70 million) and Harrison Smith (four years, $64 million) signed big-money extensions with their respective teams.

With Fitzpatrick's contract topping the market at $18.4 million in average annual value (AAV), Derwin James and Jessie Bates III can surpass or come close to matching that mark. At 31 years old, Jordan Poyer's age will likely prevent him from getting a top-of-the-market salary if the Buffalo Bills sign him to an extension.

Even though he's coming off an All-Pro year, Poyer doesn't have a resume that compares to Smith (six Pro Bowls and an All-Pro season), who signed his new deal at 32 years old. Also, the Bills have little wiggle room in cap space with quarterback Josh Allen cashing in $43 million per year on a long-term contract.

Interestingly, agent David Mulugheta represents both James and Bates, so he can use some of the same tactics to negotiate deals for the two safeties.

Mulugheta has a much better chance to talk the Los Angeles Chargers into making James the highest-paid player at the position.

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James has the same number of Pro Bowl nods as Fitzpatrick (two) but one fewer All-Pro campaign (one). Despite the former's concerning injury history, missing 29 games through four seasons, he plays a vital role in the Chargers defense as one of the most complete players at the position.

Through 36 outings, James has recorded 257 tackles (173 solo), 14 for loss, 5.5 sacks, 19 pass breakups and five interceptions. He's not quite Adams in terms of rushing the passer, but the versatile defender can supplement the pass rush if necessary. While James isn't a ball hawk, the Chargers can trust him in coverage. He's allowed just two touchdowns over the past two seasons and permitted a 63.7 passer rating in coverage last year.

According to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, the Chargers will strike a deal with James, and he thinks the talented defensive back has a chance to slide above Fitzpatrick on the pay scale.

"I'm told Los Angeles definitely believes this will get done. The Chargers see James as a true roster pillar, and James can take one of two paths strategically:

1. Do a fair market deal now.

2. Wait for Fitzpatrick to go first, and then slide in around -- or slightly above -- that number."

Even at fair value, James' new contract value should exceed $70 million in total, so our projection of four years, $72 million ($39 million guaranteed) on megacontract seems feasible for Los Angeles. Remember, the Chargers have quarterback Justin Herbert on a rookie deal for at least another year, so the front office can splurge on one of its best players.

If the Chargers hesitate to pay James $39 million in guarantees because of concerns about his durability, they can inflate the AAV of his deal and push that figure closer to $20 million.

Mulugheta will go through tougher negotiations with the Cincinnati Bengals if he tries to get Bates a contract that resets the market.

Unlike James, Bates doesn't have Pro Bowl or All-Pro recognition on his resume. He's also less versatile and more of a deep cover safety with the tendency to take the ball away. Lastly, the 25-year-old struggled through the first half of the 2021 campaign and finished the regular season with 88 tackles, four pass breakups and an interception—all career lows for a single term.

However, James made his presence felt in coverage during the Bengals' playoff run to Super Bowl LVI, registering six pass breakups and two interceptions in four games.

Though Cincinnati selected safety Dax Hill in the first round of the 2022 draft, quarterback Joe Burrow praised Bates for his performance on the field and leadership in the locker room, something a rookie cannot provide in his first year:

Caleb Noe @CalebNoeTV

Joe Burrow says he &amp; Jessie Bates are about to take a trip to Vegas.<br><br>“Business is business.”<br><br>▶️ Here’s everything Joe said about <a href="https://twitter.com/jlbiii3?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@jlbiii3</a>:<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Bengals?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Bengals</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/WCPO?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@WCPO</a> <a href="https://t.co/BtWXwIH07W">pic.twitter.com/BtWXwIH07W</a>

As the face of the franchise, Burrow understands when he speaks, people in the organization listen to him. While that doesn't mean the Bengals will back up the Brinks truck for Bates, the fifth-year pro has made it clear that he wants a long-term deal.

During an appearance on NFL Network (h/t SI.com's James Rapien), Bates talked about his contract situation.

"I'm not too worried about being the highest-paid safety," Bates said. "But I do know value over cost and I think that is something that we are going to continue to evaluate.”

According to USA Today's Tyler Dragon, Bates has "no intentions" of playing with the franchise tag for the 2022 season.

This year, the league set the franchise tender for safeties at $12.9 million. If the Bengals come to a long-term agreement with Bates, he would probably sign a deal worth $16-17 million per year with at least $33 million guaranteed, which doesn't top Fitzpatrick but keeps him within the top five at the position in both salary aspects.

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As arguably a top-five safety in the league, Bates will eventually benefit from Fitzpatrick's new contract because of the rise in the market ceiling.

Though Bates doesn't have a resume that compares to Fitzpatrick's or James' in accolades, he's racked up impressive numbers through 63 contests, logging 408 tackles (289 solo), five for loss, 35 pass breakups and 10 interceptions (one pick-six).

More reliable in availability than James, Bates could push for a high amount of guaranteed money. Perhaps he can match Marcus Williams, who signed a five-year, $70 million deal with $37 million in guarantees with the Baltimore Ravens in free agency. The latter has similar coverage numbers (38 pass breakups, 15 interceptions and one pick-six) to the former, but he's played one more year in the league.

The Bengals can also offer Bates a contract AAV that's close to Fitzpatrick's and drop the amount of guaranteed money to keep up with the competitive market, which may bump him up to $17-18 million annually.

If Cincinnati refuses to sign Bates to a long-term deal before the July 15 deadline, he can turn that team decision into a bigger payday for himself with a change of heart on his current stance.

With a stellar 2022 campaign, Bates can raise his contract demands. Coming off a year with career-high numbers, he can possibly command a deal worth $20 million per year or use Fitzpatrick's deal as a template for his asking price.

Player salary rankings are provided by Over the Cap.

Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.


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