News & Analysis

BREAKING: Steelers trade 2020 first-round pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick

Ben Roethlisberger‘s season-ending injury isn't keeping the Pittsburgh Steelers from being aggressive.

Per ESPN's Adam Schefter, Pittsburgh's brass traded a 2020 first-round pick for Miami Dolphins defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick on Monday night. Fitzpatrick requested a trade from the Dolphins following the team's blowout loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1 and turned in an 85.0 single-game grade in the team's Week 2 loss to the New England Patriots.

According to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, Miami asked Fitzpatrick to learn six positions this offseason after having him play at least 90 snaps at box safety, slot corner, outside corner and free safety as a rookie. Fitzpatrick's frustration is well-warranted because it takes him away from the position he clearly plays best and one that has grown significantly in value with the NFL's ongoing pivot to lighter personnel groupings.

As a rookie last season, the former Alabama standout earned an impressive 79.3 overall grade and a 76.7 coverage grade across 379 snaps at slot cornerback. He also ranked first in completion percentage allowed (51.3%) and passer rating allowed (53.4) among the 34 defensive players with 200 or more coverage snaps played in the slot in 2018.

Fitzpatrick was one of the best rookie slot corners we have ever graded. Since 2006, only five rookie defensive backs have earned higher coverage grades from the slot than Fitzpatrick's 79.3: Casey HaywardDesmond KingLeon HallTyrann Mathieu and Antoine Cason.

Fitzpatrick's NFL success is what we expected after he excelled for the Crimson Tide in college. His 90.5 career coverage grade playing the slot for Bama is the best grade among 93 Power 5 defenders with 400 or more slot coverage snaps played since 2014.

And successful slot cornerbacks are indeed valuable in today's NFL, well worth first-round picks.

NFL offenses used three or more wide receivers in 2018 nearly twice as often as they did in 2008. The shift in offensive strategy forces defenses to add a fifth defensive back to play a primary role. The league average for base personnel (four defensive backs) dropped to just 25% in 2018 as a result.

But slot cornerbacks aren't increasing in value solely because they're playing more often. According to PFF's data scientists Eric Eager and George Chahrouri, throwing to slot receivers has been worth approximately 0.243 expected points added (EPA) over the past 13 NFL seasons, while throwing to outside receivers has yielded only 0.228 EPA in the same span. Also, the median EPA when throwing to slot receivers is 0.200 compared with just 0.130 for outside receivers. Thus, throwing to inside receivers is not only a more valuable play, it's a safer play for offenses, as well.

Through Week 2, Pittsburgh's primary slot cornerback, Mike Hilton, has earned just a 44.6 coverage grade, ranking 30th among the 35 NFL defenders with 40 or more coverage snaps played in the slot so far this season.

Whether Pittsburgh will play Minkah at slot cornerback, where he's proven to be at his best, is still yet to be determined. Of course, it's where they should play him if they want the biggest return on investment for this trade.

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