Mark Madden: With the signing of Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers defense has to make big money

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After a four-year contract extension worth $73.6 million, Minkah Fitzpatrick is the highest-paid security. So he must be the best security.

The Steelers have the highest paid defense. So it has to be the best defense.

In a cap league, you gotta get what you pay for. This is non-negotiable.

You could get a player who exceeds his rookie contract. Hopefully running back Najee Harris will take care of that. Kenny Pickett too, if he ever plays.

But those who get elite money have to be elite.

So if new GM and longtime cap pundit Omar Khan is as smart as you’d hope, the Steelers should at least be playoff-bound and in contention for the AFC North title.

These are not unfair expectations. It’s a results-driven business, not a popularity contest.

The Steelers’ offense, on the other hand, is the lowest-paid in the league. (By the way, having the most expensive defense and the cheapest offense isn’t exactly a winning formula in today’s high-octane NFL.)

So if offensive inability doesn’t bring enough points or the defense is on the field too often, the defense has to master it. If you make the most money, do the most.

Will relying on defensive star power work? That wasn’t the case last season.

The Steelers had (and still have) a superstar on all three levels of defense: Cam Heyward on the line, TJ Watt on the edge rusher, and Fitzpatrick on safety. But the Steelers’ defense finished last and finished 24th overall. However, their “elite defence” is often cited. Fanboy horse manure > uncomfortable truth.

Fitzpatrick was a first-team All-Pro in 2020 and 21, but not last season. His tangible influence waned: Fitzpatrick was only involved with four takeaways.

Fitzpatrick had an incredible 124 tackles, which could mostly be a testament to the inside linebacker’s inability to make tackles. Certain inferiorities in the Steelers’ defense forced Fitzpatrick to play a more vanilla style rather than attempting to make plays.

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

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

Fitzpatrick could have been made to play the final season of his existing contract. The Steelers could then have evaluated the luxury of an elite safety in the context of the team’s position and then franchised it or given it a long-term pact. (Fitzpatrick’s long-term deal would have cost more later.)

Fitzpatrick would have been unhappy if he received a franchise. Maybe he wouldn’t have shown up. How did it go for Le’Veon Bell?

Fitzpatrick is not 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 of all time.

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

Is it worth having the best-paid security when the Steelers are so lacking in key places?

It should be better.

Defense has to do more to win games than offense. Maybe a lot more.

It won’t be that easy.

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 restricted Fitzpatrick last season. So does Terrell Edmunds, who returns to safety as Fitzpatrick’s mediocre partner.

Before leaving 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 is no doubting the performance and pedigree of Fitzpatrick, Heyward and Watt. But last season, their excellence was far from enough.

That’s still not a great defense. It doesn’t get much better against the run. Fitzpatrick getting more money doesn’t change anything.

However, you don’t pay stars insane stacks to win awards, set records and sell jerseys. You pay stars to affect the win as much as possible.

When Fitzpatrick put pen to paper, the stakes rose.

The Steelers just need to make the playoffs and compete for the AFC North crown.

If the NFL’s most expensive defense can’t fix the Steelers’ pervasive disadvantage as a quarterback within the division, what can?

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