Mark Madden: With Minkah Fitzpatrick signed, Steelers defense must provide bang for big bucks

After getting a four-year contract extension worth $73.6 million, Minkah Fitzpatrick is the NFL’s highest-paid safety. So he needs to be the best safety.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have the highest-paid defense. So it needs to be the best defense.

In a league using a salary cap, you must get what you pay for. That’s non-negotiable.

You might get a player outperforming his rookie contract. Hopefully running back Najee Harris provides that. Kenny Pickett, too, if he ever plays.

But those getting elite money must be elite.

So if new GM and longtime cap expert Omar Khan is as smart as you hope he is, the Steelers should be playoff-bound, at the least, and contend for the AFC North title.

Those are not unfair expectations. It’s a results-based business, not a popularity contest.

The Steelers offense, conversely, is the league’s lowest-paid. (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 ineptitude results in too few points or the defense being on the field too often, the defense must conquer that. If you make the most money, do the most.

Will relying on defensive star power work? It didn’t last season.

The Steelers had (and have) a superstar at all three levels of defense: Cameron Heyward on the line, T.J. Watt at edge rusher and Fitzpatrick at safety. But the Steelers defense finished dead last against the run and 24th overall. Yet their “elite defense” is often cited. Fanboy horse manure is greater than the unpleasant truth.

Fitzpatrick was first-team All-Pro in 2020 and ’21 but not last season. His tangible impact declined: Fitzpatrick was involved in just four takeaways.

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

So Fitzpatrick now is the highest-paid safety in NFL history. He’s not Troy Polamalu and probably isn’t the NFL’s best safety, but Fitzpatrick is close enough. It’s his time and his turn.

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

Fitzpatrick could have been made to play out the final season of his existing contract. The Steelers then could have evaluated the luxury of having an elite safety within the context of where the team was at, then franchised him or given him a long-term pact. (Fitzpatrick’s long-term deal would have cost more later.)

Fitzpatrick would have been unhappy had he been franchised. Maybe he wouldn’t have showed up. How’d that work out for Le’Veon Bell?

Fitzpatrick isn’t undeserving. Far from it.

But the most important positions in football are quarterback, cornerback, left tackle and edge rusher. Watt is one of the best edge rushers ever.

But at quarterback, the Steelers have a journeyman and a rookie. At cornerback, they have mediocrity, maybe worse. At left tackle, they’ve got a fourth-round draft pick in his second year.

Is having the highest-paid safety worth it when the Steelers are so lacking at key spots?

It had better be.

The defense must do more to win games than the offense. Perhaps a lot more.

It won’t be that simple.

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

The inside linebackers limited Fitzpatrick last season. So did Terrell Edmunds, who returns as Fitzpatrick’s mediocre partner at safety.

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

The cornerbacks are questionable. That’s a nice way of putting it.

Stars are fun. There’s no doubting the performance and pedigree of Fitzpatrick, Heyward and Watt. But last season, their excellence wasn’t nearly enough.

That’s still not a great defense. It won’t do much better against the run. Fitzpatrick getting more money changes nothing.

Anyway, you don’t pay stars mad stacks to win awards, set records and sell jerseys. You pay stars to impact winning as much as possible.

When Fitzpatrick put pen to paper, the stakes went up.

The Steelers simply must make the playoffs and challenge for the AFC North crown.

If the NFL’s most expensive defense can’t remedy the Steelers’ profound disadvantage at quarterback within the division, what can?

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