Moneywise, Minkah Fitzpatrick was well entrenched as one of the top five safeties in the NFL. Then in last year’s season opener, the Steelers star proved his worth and showed why he was voted tops at his position in the league.
In fact, in Fitzpatrick’s case, it’s difficult to visually create a better start to the fall. Fitzpatrick picked off Joe Burrow the very first time the Bengals quarterback attempted a pass. The Pittsburgh safety promptly returned it for a touchdown.
But wait, he still wasn’t done. The top safety in the NFL also will throw down on special teams. Fitzpatrick blocked the Bengals’ extra-point try with 2 seconds remaining in regulation to send the contest into overtime.
The game was no fluke. Fitzpatrick intercepted six passes this past season. He now has 19 in four seasons wearing the Steelers’ black and gold. His smooth ball-hawking skills also are a big reason why his fellow players voted him as the top free safety in the NFL.
When he signed his contract last year, Fitzpatrick topped all safeties in the NFL. Derwin James eventually surpassed Fitzpatrick’s $18.4 million.
The rest of the NFL’s best free safeties
Let’s take a look at the rest of the best of the NFL free safeties as voted by the NFLPA.
There’s probably not a more active player on the field than Tennessee Titan Kevin Byard. The free safety from Middle Tennessee State made 95 tackles last fall, with four interceptions. It’s why the players voted him No. 2 among NFL free safeties. He’s a fixture in the Titans’ secondary. Quarterbacks learned not to throw his way after his second year in the NFL. That was in 2017, when Byard grabbed eight picks.
Quandre Diggs also is a mainstay in the Seattle secondary. He ranked No. 3 among the top NFL free safeties as he often served as the last line of defense for the Seahawks. His numbers were phenomenal. Pro Football Focus, which crunches stats, ranked Diggs as tops in the league in fewest receptions allowed. Receivers caught only 10 passes when Diggs defended against them. And quarterbacks completed only 47 percent of their passes thrown his way.
Then there’s Jessie Bates, the now-former Bengal. He ranked fourth among the NFL’s best free safeties. And coincidentally, he agreed to a contract this week with Atlanta that makes him the fourth-highest-paid safety in league history. If you’re counting, Bates will make $23 million this season. He proved his worth last season. The Bengals were one of the top secondaries in the NFL, boasting the lowest completion percentage for opposing quarterbacks. No wonder the Falcons paid top dollar to entice Bates to Atlanta.
Budding Miami star Jevon Holland is the youngest guy amongst the NFL’s top five free safeties. In only his second season in Miami, Holland earned a captain’s spot for the defense. He’s banked four interceptions in his first two seasons. New defensive coordinator Nick Fangio is known for grooming top safeties, so expect even more from Holland in 2023.