For the first time in quite a while, the Steelers are not favored to win the AFC North by those who set betting lines on such things. That honor goes to the Browns, who made several big-splash acquisitions in the offseason.
But there hasn't been any teeth gnashing over that among the Steelers this offseason. They've embraced the role of underdog. In fact, they have actually relished it, knowing that being the favorite only brings added pressure and puts a target on you for opponents.
Anyone on the team having trouble dealing with the role of underdog need only look across the locker room at teammate Jordan Dangerfield.
The 28-year-old safety has been an underdog in the NFL since playing his last game at Towson University in 2012. Signed and released by the Bills that year, he hooked on with the Steelers — the first time — for the 2014 season. He's been released and re-signed five more times by the team, spending the entire 2018 season on the team's active roster. He also did so in 2016, and was active for 14 of the team's 16 games.
When you look up underdog in the dictionary, there's a picture of Dangerfield staring back.
"They would have folded," Dangerfield told me Wednesday when I asked him what most people would have done after being released six times. "That’s why I’m different. I had to keep my faith. That’s why when I get the opportunity, I’m going to make the most of it."
The hard-hitting safety got that opportunity in Week 17 of 2018 against the Bengals, when starting free safety Sean Davis missed the Steelers' regular season finale with an injury. Dangerfield, who had started two games for the Steelers at strong safety in 2016 -- before being out of football completely in 2017 -- got the nod in place of Davis and over veteran Morgan Burnett. It showed his versatility and his ability to compete. Dangerfield made just two tackles in the game, but the Steelers didn't allow any big plays and won the game, 16-13.
Now, with Burnett having been released, there's a spot up for grabs as the No. 3 safety behind Davis and Terrell Edmunds. Dangerfield has the most experience of those vying for that job, a group that includes second-year player Marcus Allen, free-agent AAF veteran Kameron Kelly, and undrafted free-agents Dravon Askew-Henry and P.J. Locke.
"I played free safety that whole game," Dangerfield said of the game against the Bengals last season. "I can play strong or free. I’m going into my sixth year this year. They know what I can bring to the table."
They do. And it spoke volumes the Steelers didn't bring in a safety to replace Burnett, who was released soon after the draft this year. It seems the Steelers see Dangerfield as a real possibility to be their No. 3 safety this season.
"Hopefully, I can be that third safety," Dangerfield said. "And I love special teams. I cherish special teams. I didn’t watch the draft, but it was big that they didn’t draft a safety. It was big. I’ll continue to show them what I got."
That's never been a concern with Dangerfield. Ever the underdog, he gives everything he has every time he steps on the football field. He's not bad off it, either. Earlier this spring, he went back to Towson and completed the final 16 credits he needed to graduate, something he said was important because he wanted his young son to see his father accomplish it.
Former @Towson_FB standout Jordan Dangerfield returned to @TowsonU for Commencement Thursday. Now a member of the @Steelers, @dangerfield__ wanted to prove to his son what hard work in the classroom can do. #TUproud https://t.co/nYtRuKtTRg pic.twitter.com/SKcHjo2qFB
— Towson University News (@TowsonUNews) May 23, 2019
With that task completed, he wants to make the next move and save that degree for several years down the road when his NFL career is over.
But first, he could teach some lessons of his own. The Steelers have 90 players at their OTAs. Of those, only about 40 are assured spots on the team's final 53-man roster. That means there are 50 players who are in the same situation Dangerfield has been in every year since 2013.
Dangerfield's message to those players? Don't get comfortable, even if you've had a great practice or game.
"Never. That’s the first rule, never get comfortable. Never," he said. "There’s always somebody trying to take your spot. You’ve got to come out and put your best foot forward every day, and not take anything for granted. I’ve been through the ups and downs. I’ve been without football for a whole year, even, when I was healthy. All I have to do is think about those hard times and it motivates me."
The Steelers could look at their 2018 season the same way. Picked to win their division, they stumbled down the stretch to finish 9-6-1 and out of the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
Because of that, the entire offseason has been uncomfortable. Hard decisions have been made. Players have come and gone.
The ones who remain? They seem to be hardened by the failure -- just like Dangerfield.
"It’s been a journey, a blessing. I don’t take one day for granted. I’m thankful for it," Dangerfield said. "That’s why I give it my all every day."
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