The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 9-8 record at the end of the season speaks to the kind of year it was overall. Though the first half and the second half told different stories, in the end it was all quite average. Outside of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, perhaps, nobody really rose to a superstar level.
Yet it’s hard to stomach the notion that inside linebacker Devin Bush was the team’s most improved player from the 2021 season to 2022. Measured apparently purely by the grades their own site assigns players, Gordon McGuinness writes for the outlet today that he falls into that category for Pittsburgh.
“It might not have been an incredible season, but 2022 was a significant improvement for the 10th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft”, he writes. “Still, it wasn’t impressive enough for the Steelers to think that they made the wrong decision in not picking up his fifth-year option. Bush did post a career-best 3.5% missed tackle rate, something he’ll hope can help him in free agency”.
To be clear, Bush’s Pro Football Focus grade for the 2022 season was 58.8. That is a bad grade. But his grade in 2021 was 34.4, which is horrible. When viewed as a 24.4-point grade improvement, I suppose you can make the case for him.
How does this compare to other possibilities? The first player who came to my mind was outside linebacker Alex Highsmith. He earned a grade of 78.0 from the outlet for the 2022 season, which is more than respectable. But he was already working from a 65.1 grade, so he ‘only’ improved by about 13 points, a little more than half of Bush’s improvement.
But this doesn’t seem to follow a clear year-to-year grade improvement. PFF actually gave Fitzpatrick a laughably low 57.2 defense grade for the 2021 season despite acknowledging that he was the best safety in the league in their own grading system in the second half of that year. They gave him a grade of 82.4 for 2022. That’s a difference of 25.2.
So why isn’t Fitzpatrick considered the Steelers’ most improved player? After all, they take the time to specifically cite each year’s grade and the difference between the two grades, so if that’s not the measurement being used, why bother citing it?
Yet I can present the argument myself that Bush was a more improved player in 2022 than was Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick’s play in 2021 was substantially underrated to begin with. He was great that season, especially in the second half.
Bush, on the other hand, may well have been cut outright if his contract weren’t guaranteed. He was horrible and a liability. He definitely played much better this past season, but only in comparison to how horrible he was a year earlier. And he still got benched by the end of the season.
I still think Highsmith was the Steelers’ most improved player.