The Steelers will start Terrell Edmunds and Sean Davis at the two safety spots in the 2019 season. That much is locked.
After that, however, reach into the grab-bag and see what you find. There's a Marcus Allen in there somewhere, floating beside the Jordan Dangerfield and the Kameron Kelly. You might even snag a Dravon Askew-Henry, P.J. Locke or Marcelis Branch.
Point is: The Steelers have options at safety, and after that first tier, it feels like anybody's game to go out and prove their worth to make the team's final, 53-man roster. The Steelers didn't draft a safety in 2019, so it's clear the team thinks it has the in-house talent needed to make a run. Throughout this week's minicamp at the Rooney Complex, I wanted to speak with some of those in the mix and gather their thoughts and feelings. What are they doing well? Why should they make the team?
The Steelers traditionally carry four or five safeties on their roster during the regular season. That means it's likely only three of Dangerfield, Allen, Kelly, Askew-Henry, Locke and Branch will be around by the end of August. There's also the possibility Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton could slide into the safety position at times, potentially cutting that three down to two.
So who will it be?
Marcus Allen | Age: 22 | Year 2
Allen, a 2018 fifth-round draft pick out of Penn State, missed minicamp and OTAs last season with a hamstring injury. He never earned a regular role on the field for the Steelers, appearing in just two games and registering two tackles (one solo). Despite this, Allen took the time to learn and to digest the playbook.
This year, sitting at his locker, he tells me that journey is paying off:
To Allen, the experience as a whole was rewarding in that it gave him time to grow, but it was also frustrating to miss out on the chance to showcase his skills and his value to the team. Now, he plays with a chip on his shoulder.
“Last year was pretty humbling, so every game it was going through my mind, like, ‘I know I can do this. I know I can play,’" Allen was saying. "So this year feels like just going out there, showing what I can do, and proving to everybody I’m here and here to play. That’s my motive: Just show the coaches why they drafted me.”
When I asked Allen what separates him from the pack, he pointed to his all-around skills immediately.
“Versatility. I can be in the box. I can cover. I can go in the post. I can play half. If they want me to play ’backer, I can play ’backer. I can play dime — whatever they want," he was saying.
Even though Allen is all handshakes and smiles and camaraderie around the facility, he understands the reality of his situation well.
“It’s a business. This happens every year," Allen said. "I’m going to just be me regardless of any situation, so I’m going to be out there, being myself and just playing to the best of my ability. And I know that’s going to be the best thing for the outcome of it. So whatever happens, happens; but I know I’m going to be ballin’.”
Jordan Dangerfield | Age: 28 | Year 6
Dangerfield is by far the most experienced of the group, and that gives him an advantage. He knows the plays. He's proven he'll get dirty on special teams and rise to the challenge of starting when needed. He has 17 combined tackles (10 solo) across 30 total games as a pro, registering three starts during that stretch.
Just as Allen pointed toward his versatility as a major asset, Dangerfield did the same — and he has the game tape to prove it.
"I can play strong or free," Dangerfield, who started at free safety against the Bengals in Week 17 last year, was telling Dale Lolley during OTAs. "I’m going into my sixth year this year. They know what I can bring to the table."
That's accurate, and it's valuable for Dangerfield. He's showcased his willingness to do it all, and he's even gone above and beyond off the field, electing to finish his degree from Towson while juggling the rigors of fighting for a roster position throughout his NFL career. That's the kind of character that just screams "Steelers" and everything they're trying to be in 2019. While Dangerfield is scrapping with the rest of the pack, his sights aren't set on simply making the team. He wants that primary backup role.
"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."
Kameron Kelly | Age: 22 | Year 2
Kelly first popped onto my radar when Lolley was mentioning him as a real possibility to make a run at the final 53, so I started keeping my eyes peeled on him at the practice field.
He's not hard to find.
At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Kelly is the most physically intimidating of the bunch. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Cowboys in 2018 before being released before the preseason. From there, Kelly spent time with the now-defunct AAF's San Diego Fleet, playing cornerback and wide receiver.
Yes, wide receiver, as in: Kelly has hands.
"Everybody here has good ball skills, but I feel like that's my niche in my game," Kelly was telling me. "I feel like my ball skills are good. And just my knowledge of the game, making sure that my IQ is just as high as possible. I'm not the fastest guy. I'm not going to run a 4.3, but if I can move to the ball .2 or .3 seconds faster than the next person, that makes up for it. Now I'm running a 4.2 basically."
That is something the Steelers, who generated just eight interceptions in 2018 — 28th in the NFL — desperately need. It's not a point lost on Kelly, who was saying he feels like a "perfect fit" with the Steelers thanks to his all-around skill set:
From here, Kelly says he'll spend his time before training camp on July 25 watching film of his "favorite players" such as Charles Woodson and Kam Chancellor. He sounds hungry to learn and eager to devour everything he can, and he's already self-critical in his reflection of OTAs and minicamp.
"I can go back and pull up like four or five plays where my three picks in camp could have been seven or eight," Kelly said. "It's not missed assignments but just getting out there and everything happening so fast that you kind of just get caught up in it. I just want to keep slowing the game down and keep making as many plays as possible."
Dravon Askew-Henry | Age: 23 | Rookie
After a standout career at West Virginia University, Aliquippa's Askew-Henry looks to stay local as a pro. Early on, though, he's feeling the stresses of life in the NFL.
“It’s an adjustment, just staying in the playbook, staying consistent with the plays and just getting better every day," Askew-Henry was telling me at the Rooney Complex.
But between the learning and the struggles, Askew-Henry is making that transition and making some plays — and some friends. From the coaches to his peers, he says life as a Steeler is suiting him just fine.
“Everybody in the locker room’s cool," he said. "It feels like a brotherhood in here. Like I said, man, I’m just glad to be a part of this team ... But once we get on the field, it’s just time to handle business.”
In handling that business, Askew-Henry will need to stand out and make an impression upon the Steelers brass. So I pressed him with a question to that end, and he gave an answer that will sound just a little familiar:
This battle is an interesting one, and "football in shorts" isn't the right time to make a final call on roster decisions. Kelly, Dangerfield and Allen currently lead the pack in my eyes, but that can change when the pads come out and physical, hard-hitting safeties such as Locke get a chance to showcase their full worth.
Let's use this as a primer to track through training camp and take it from there.
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