It’s no secret the Steelers didn’t get the kind of play out of the safety position they required in 2017. When you give up 13 pass plays of 40 or more yards — with most coming in the second half of the season — somebody on the back end isn’t doing his job.
For the Steelers, that guy was free safety Mike Mitchell, who played through an ankle injury in 2017 that severely limited his range. And his backup, Robert Golden, wasn’t much better.
In fact, both were released at the start of free agency as the Steelers needed to trim some salary to get under the cap and also move forward at that position.
Morgan Burnett was signed in free agency, and the former Packers star has played both free and strong safety in his career. He’ll join Sean Davis on the back end of the Steelers’ defense, while J.J. Wilcox remains on the roster after coming over in a trade from Tampa Bay late in the preseason last year.
But the Steelers obviously could use some young talent at the position and Burnett, Davis and Wilcox are all better suited to play in the box than they are as true centerfielder-type safeties. That could lead the Steelers to search for a player with some deep range in the draft, which will be held next Thursday through Saturday.
Fortunately for the Steelers, this is a great year to be in need of adding some talent at safety.
Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick and Florida State’s Derwin James are considered two of the top 10-15 prospects in this draft and both would look good on the back end of any secondary, though Fitzpatrick also could play cornerback.
Those two figure to be long gone by the time the Steelers make their first selection with the 28th pick in the first round. But the Steelers could find themselves in a sweet spot of the draft to select the third-best safety in this class.
Who that player might be, however, is up for debate.
Want a true centerfielder with plenty of range? Wake Forest’s Jessie Bates has the range and ball skills — five interceptions in 2016 — the Steelers have coveted at the position for some time. But the knock on the redshirt sophomore who just turned 21 in February is that he needs to get stronger.
Strength is not a problem for Alabama’s Ronnie Harrison, 6-2, 216-pound missile who was one of the enforcers in the national champion’s defense. While Harrison has outstanding size for the position, his 4.56-second speed in the 40-yard dash isn’t ideal.
Perhaps a cross between those two is Stanford’s Justin Reid. The 6-0, 207-pound Reid can play deep off the line of scrimmage but also played over the slot receiver for the Cardinal last season, finishing the year with 99 tackles, five interceptions and six pass breakups. He also ran a 4.40 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Despite being looked at as a strong safety in the NFL, Harrison was considered more of the free at Alabama, where he lined up opposite Fitzpatrick.
“I’m just getting the question of which I’m more comfortable with,” Harrison admitted at the combine. “I’m comfortable playing either one. A lot of the time, though, they’re looking at me as a strong safety.
“At Alabama, free is what I mainly played.”
Even if the Steelers pass on a safety in the first round of this draft, there are plenty of other intriguing prospects who could be available in rounds two and three who could wind up being NFL starters.
Here is a look at my top-10 safeties in this year’s draft:
- Minkah Fitzpatrick, 6-1, 201, Alabama
- Derwin James, 6-3, 214, Florida State
- Justin Reid, 6-0, 207, Stanford
- Jessie Bates, 6-1, 200, Wake Forest
- Ronnie Harrison, 6-2, 216, Alabama
- Dane Cruikshank, 6-1, 209, Arizona
- Kyzir White, 6-2, 216, West Virginia
- Tarvarius Moore, 6-2, 190, Southern Mississippi
- Marcus Allen, 6-2, 202, Penn State
- Terrell Edmunds, 6-0, 217, Virginia Tech
There’s a good chance one of those players ends up on the Steelers’ roster. But the team also wouldn’t mind shedding the salary of Wilcox. That could mean the Steelers double down at safety, something they have done in previous years to fill a position of need.
Allen is an interesting prospect in that he’s a sure tackler — finishing fifth in Penn State history — but he also had just one career interception. He could be a player destined to be a sub-package linebacker, a position that has gained popularity as NFL offenses have shifted to throwing the ball more than ever.
“I’ve talked to teams about safety. If that’s what they look at me as, I have no problem,” Allen said of moving to linebacker.
Jordan Whitehead from Pitt or Troy Apke from Penn State could be interesting late-round picks who star early on special teams. The same goes for Tre Flowers from Oklahoma State, a lanky, 6-3, 202-pound safety who some feel has the frame to put on 15 pounds and become a coverage linebacker, much the same way the Steelers did with former West Virginia safety Terence Garvin.