Tim Benz: Minkah Fitzpatrick’s Steelers debut was microcosm of debate to acquire him
If you were looking for crystallization of the entire Minkah Fitzpatrick debate, you got it in his first game as a Pittsburgh Steeler Sunday in San Francisco.
If you share my opinion about Fitzpatrick as a player, you saw all the reasons to be happy about the transaction.
He was involved in two turnovers and was disruptive to the San Francisco 49ers offense, blitzing more often than anticipated.
If you share my logic about the rationale of the trade, you saw all the reasons why it shouldn’t have been made.
Because for as good as Fitzpatrick was in his first game wearing Black and Gold, he couldn’t impact the game enough to tilt the result toward the Steelers on an afternoon when the opponent seemed to be actively trying to lose.
The 49ers were so bad that they committed five turnovers — two involving Fitzpatrick — yet still couldn’t lose to these woeful Steelers.
The 49ers ended up winning 24-20.
So the inherent conundrum of the trade manifested in its first experiment. The gifted Fitzpatrick delivered on his promised impact, and he still couldn’t help the Steelers over the top.
If what Fitzpatrick gave us is a best-case scenario individually, yet the collective result of the game didn’t change, was it wise to give the Miami Dolphins a first-round pick to acquire his services?
Granted, we’re just examining a microcosm of the argument. It’s not proof of the result one way or the other after a mere four quarters of football.
This direction is where I fear it is going, though — Fitzpatrick is a free safety who can only influence his team’s efforts toward victory so much.
Fitzpatrick is not a quarterback, or a shutdown corner, or a chaotic pass rusher, or a 1,200-yard wide receiver, or an All-Pro offensive tackle. By the nature of his position, Fitzpatrick won’t be able to influence the outcome of as many plays as the guys in those positions.
To that end, if the Steelers do end up receiving a top-10 draft pick come April 2020 — which is entirely possible at this rate — it would’ve been wise to select one of the best players at those positions as opposed to making Fitzpatrick the de facto selection in September.
Again, that’s not a criticism of Fitzpatrick’s talents. He’s excellent. Buy your No. 39 jersey now. You’ll be proud to wear it.
I’m only suggesting it may be wise to apply a baseball mentality to a football conversation in this case.
Normally, I’m not a big fan of the “WAR” statistic in baseball — wins above replacement. I think that metric is nothing but a self-fulfilling, subjective opinion wrapped in objective metric clothing.
Although, I believe that the model is valid here.
Sean Davis, Fitzpatrick’s injured predecessor at the position, was probably an average to slightly-above-average player at the position last year. That was a 9-6-1 season.
Is Fitzpatrick such a dominant force by himself that he is going to elevate the Steelers’ record more than a game?
At best. Certainly not two, right?
And if that’s not the case, would you rather have the next Jalen Ramsey, Todd Gurley, Christian McCaffrey, DeForest Buckner, Marshon Lattimore, Quenton Nelson or Patrick Mahomes instead?
All of those Pro Bowlers were drafted between the fifth and 11th pick in the drafts of 2015-18. Picks Nos. 5 through 11 were all awarded to organizations who finished with only five or six wins in 2018.
So that’s the range the Steelers are looking at unless they are above .500 the rest of this season.
Feel optimistic about that happening? I don’t. I mean, they only get to play the awful Dolphins once, you know.
This conversation will be had non-stop until April when we view “what could’ve been” for the Steelers on the draft board. That’s when those same front office folks in South Florida will be licking their chops over what talent they are about to land with the pick they grabbed from Pittsburgh.
You watch. Fitzpatrick is going to do everything possible on his own to justify the decision by Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert.
Unfortunately, the rest of the team around him this season may be so bad, it won’t help.