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Analyzing the Steelers Wants and Needs for the 2016 NFL Draft – Safety

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It makes sense to examine Pittsburgh’s wants and needs before we get too deep into the prospects available in this year’s draft. The results may surprise you.

Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

A Hymn in Praise of the Humble Safety. Safety is one of the least understood positions on the field, and one of my personal favorites. Both things stem from the same reason - it's because they're a hybrid between too-small linebackers and a-tad-too-slow Corners.

Safeties come in two flavors as everyone knows: Free and Strong. In many coverages that distinction makes no difference. Where there are different duties it's more a matter of approach than a major difference in duties. Strong safeties lean toward the linebacker side. They typically start from a run support point of view and have reputations as fearsome hitters, but they are also ever-ready to quickly switch gears if they read a pass instead. This is the 8th Man in the box who needs to be fast enough to get out of that box when the offense crosses him up.

Free safeties start from a pass-protection point of view, but are expected to get involved as soon as a gadget play is ruled out. They're your classic center fielder who picks up the deep receiver and punishes any wideout who dares to make a catch between the hashes. Pittsburgh's Free Safeties are expected to take that "punishment" part seriously, btw. Both Ryan Clark and Mike Mitchell would cheerfully saw a receiver in half if he got to bold about making balletic leaps across the middle.

Both kinds of Safety are, at core, the final line of defense. They're the ones who react to a ball in the air headed for a receiver who's beat his man. "He may be open now, but you better throw that thing on a line or I'll make sure he regrets it!" And they're the one who fills in when a linebacker misses his gap and the running back breaks free.

The position became more important as the game spread out and got faster in recent years. Why? It comes down to a question of math. There is literally nothing a defense can do to prevent a great receiver from catching a perfectly thrown ball. You can only hope to narrow the windows so much that the QB has to make a perfect throw, and the receiver is forced to make a really great catch. How do you narrow those windows? Speed. Modern defenses rely to a huge extent on seeing what's coming, reacting in time, and closing so fast that the window disappears while the ball is in the air. Nothing else, besides pure pressure on the quarterback, can hope to succeed.

In underneath coverage your modern defense will really on the Strong Safeties with an assist from really fast ILB's. That's one of the reasons Ryan Shazier was so attractive. In the mid-range game it's the two Safeties on their own. For deep passes it's the Free Safety with an assist from the Corners. But in every twist and permutation the Safeties are essential. They have to be faster than any linebacker; they have to hit harder and more reliably than any Corner; and above all they must have phenomenal read-and-react skills.

That is the absolute, #1, indispensible feature for a Safety of any kind - the ability to read what's coming, make a quick decision about where to go, and know what to do when he gets there. One false step in the wrong direction, and bang! He'll get there too late and the result will be big play for the offense - and all too often a touchdown.

A look at the current Roster.

Mike Mitchell came to the league with 4.4 speed and awesome athletic potential. He now has tremendous read-and-react skills too. He didn't when he came into the league and it cost him a lot of abuse and suffering from the Oakland fans. But now he's finally arrived and proving it for the Steelers. The other thing about Mitchell is that he's the epitome of a player who can play both Free and Strong with equal facility. In Pittsburgh he's mostly been a Free Safety because the coaches were more worried about big plays over the top than anything else. But he flat out loves to hit and many observers think he'd do even better as a Strong Safety who can shift in and out of the box.

Shamarko Thomas does not have good read-and-react skills. This is where failed so badly, and why he couldn't be allowed to work through it despite his startling athletic ability. He regularly missed his reads. That meant he either went in the wrong direction or delayed his start so long that he got there late. Either way the result was disaster. This is the "above the neck" stuff that Coach Tomlin was referring too in his famous critique. Unfortunately for us, the indications are he couldn't fix the problem even in the classroom. It doesn't bode well for his future. There's still hope - after all, the Raider fans said much the same thing about Mitchell once upon a time - but hope is pretty much all we can count on.

Robert Golden has finally "got it" when it comes to the read-and-react stuff, and he's a ferocious hitter. The problem here is a lack of athletic genius. Golden makes you and I look like chumps, but compared to other NFL athletes he's two steps slower and a move or two less quick than the guys he's supposed to defend. Golden's like a poker player in a game that's rigged against him. The other guy has a full deck, while his is missing the kings and queens. Skill alone can balance things out, and he should continue to improve above the neck. But sooner or later the odds will catch up and give him a beating when he's up against really superior opponents like the modern breed of flex Tight End.

Ross Ventrone looks like Shamarko-lite at this point in his career. And Jordan Dangerfield (on the practice squad) looks like Golden-lite. They're all monsters on special teams duty but there are real questions about their ability to progress into a starting role.

And then there's Will Allen. He never did have the elite tools you look for, but he made it up with incredible savvy (a/k/a phenomenal read-and-react skills). As with most veterans what we saw in 2015 was a contest between the decay of those tools and advantage of all that know-how. It's not something we're going to see in 2015. The word is that Allen wanted to retire last year but instead came back in response to a personal plea from Mike Tomlin. If that's even half true we have to assume he'll demand his honorable discharge and retire instead of racing against Father Time for yet another year.

That means the roster projection for 2016 will look something like this:

  • Mike Mitchell (#1 at Free or Strong Safety)
  • Will Allen [Expected to retire]
  • Shamarko Thomas (Unable to play because of read-and-react limitations)
  • Robert Golden (Limited ceiling and can be exposed by really great opponents)
  • Ross Ventrone (Shamarko-lite)
  • Jordan Dangerfield (Golden-lite)

That's one quality starter, one quality backup, and three wannabes who've yet to show they have the right stuff. Yikes.

Keep Your Eye Out For a Free Agent - From Without or Within. The Steelers aren't known for dipping into the free agent market, but snagging another Safety under these circumstances would make a lot of sense. As discussed below, there is no potential prospect in the draft who's likely to be an impact player for the Steelers even in his second year. The mental part of the position is just too demanding, and those with a head start in that department have athletic or health questions that limit their ceiling. Renting an established veteran for 2-3 years would therefore make a lot of sense. Eric Weddle (32) would fit that profile and has been much discussed by the fans, but his asking price might be prohibitive. The Steelers have a lot of home-grown talent that needs to get paid too (starting with Beachum, Foster and McLendon this year, but soon moving on to even bigger names like David Decastro, Leveon Bell, and a new deal for Antonio Brown).

Another outsider who's been mentioned is Tashaun Gipson from Cleveland. He's a younger player who I don't know well enough to talk about. Please feel free to discuss him in the Comments. I'd like to hear more.

Then there are the internal candidates - Corners who are already on the team but might be able to shift over to Free Safety. As discussed above that would cause no problem for Mike Mitchell - he's been playing Free Safety but may actually be more suited to Strong Safety anyway. The issue is whether any of these players can do the job.

William Gay is first up. Other Corners have moved to Safety in a bid to extend their careers. The great Rod Woodson did it at an exceptional level, and so did his namesake Charles. William Gay is getting up in years. Might he do the same? Probably not.

Yes, Gay tackles as well as some Free Safeties, though nothing at all like the hits we've grown used to from Ryan Clark and now Mike Mitchell. And he has the smarts. But there's a reason this switch is so rare. You have to remember that the Woodsons are all-time greats - not just pro-bowlers, but the sort of players who transcend the game and become the stuff of legend. Big Play Willie Gay is no slouch but he isn't in that league. He's also our only seasoned and reliable Corner. It might be worth considering in a year or two when Gay finally loses that essential step he needs on the outside, but for now such a change might solve Problem "A" but only at the expense of creating Problem "B". It's just not worth it.

Cortez Allen comes next. Allen has been a huge disappointment ever since the moment he got his big contract in 2014. His hurt his foot before the year could even begin, and after that he basically contributed nothing at all. He also looked iffy even in the offseason games where he played uninjured. We at BTSC noticed a disturbing problem with the new emphasis on pass interference. Allen kept getting flagged because he couldn't get his head around to look for the ball in time. Speculation ran amok about whether the problems had eroded his confidence. Then he got put on I.R.

2015 was supposed to be the rebound year. Cortez would bounce back fully healed, fix his technical glitches, and reclaim his role as the #1 Corner. It didn't happen. In the preseason he continued to show problems with getting his head around; continued to be a P.I. machine; and continued to suffer from fans who grew ever more convinced his problems had evolved into a nasty cycle of a growing lack of confidence. Then he hurt his knee, failed to recover, and got put on I.R. once again. How much of it came from mental injury and how much from the physical one? None of us can say, but the questions are there.

Now we're headed toward 2015 and Cortez Allen must face the music that comes from receiving $6 Million dollars per year and contributing exactly zilch. Many think he could be a cap casualty. Others think he should be despite a fairly nasty hit from dead money. "Better the dead money cap hit than a massive and useless contract with the same problem coming back in 2017."

Could he move to Free Safety instead? I'm not a film watcher but it seems to me that the answer ought to be "Yes." He's got the size. He's got the speed. He's a more than willing tackler. And his coverage problem was pretty specific - an inability to get his head around when running in a trail technique (on the receiver's hip). Free Safeties keep the word in front of them. Their job description includes the rule, ‘never get in a position where you're running behind the receiver in the first place.' So Free Safety might be where his assets could flower without his limitation getting in the way.

It's a stretch but it wouldn't be a shock.

Doran Grant is the final name that gets mentioned. The problem is that he's never even tried the position so far as I know. He gets mentioned only because draft analysts suggested that he had the right build and attitude to make such a switch if he couldn't make the grade at Corner.

For the foreseeable future we have to assume that Grant will keep trying to succeed at the position he was drafted to play. Yes, the coaches may decide to move him over. But we've heard nothing about that yet and it wouldn't be a quick thing to do. Remember that the #1 challenge for Safeties of all types is the ability to read and react to whatever the offense is doing. Young men who played Safety for their entire college careers get to the NFL and look like thunderstruck bunnies at the speed and complexity of that task. Polamalu was useless for his entire rookie year. Rod and Charles Woodson picked it up fast enough, but they were grizzled veterans already with Hall of Fame knowledge and study habits. So the bottom line is this: Doran Grant might someday be moved to Safety and it might even be next year, but he won't be able to fill the existing gap until a year or two after that - at the soonest.

It's a grim situation.

Who's Out There In the Draft. In recent years we've seen a surge of hyper-athletic Safeties come into the league in response to the increased demands described above. This year there's exactly one - Jalen Ramsey - and he's going to go in the top 5-10 players of the draft.

After that there is no one - not a single player! - that has a 1st-Round grade on our preliminary BTSC Board. It's the team's #1 need in my humble opinion, and there's no one there to pick. Grrrrr. Even worse, there is no one who has a reasonable chance to contribute as a rookie. The learning curve for a Safety is just too steep and without some unique genius it's a mountain that almost no one can climb. Freak results can always happen, but realists need to stick with this: If Troy couldn't play at a decent level in his rookie year, don't expect it of anyone else.

No use crying over spilled milk. The upside is that Mitchell's flexibility allows the team to focus on both Strong and Free Safety candidates based on potential alone. Expect the F.O. to study each of these prospects intensively and to pick their favorite at some point on Day 2:

1:05

Jalen Ramsey, CB/S, Florida State - 6'1", 204 lbs. The only question marks for Ramsey are measurables like straight line speed, cone drills, and other SPARQ components. If those only "okay" you're looking at the best Safety in the draft, bar none. If they're exceptional, you're looking at someone who could remind people of Rod Woodson - a superb Corner prospect who will eventually move to Safety as his career winds down. From the Steelers' point of view, the only question is where he would be "more" special. Alas, but it's not a problem they're likely to have.

This January scouting report from the Draft Wire emphasizes that Ramsey is an athletic genius who deserves all the raves, but also a player who will continue to improve as he masters more of the technical subtleties and intellectual aspects of the game.

2:12

Jayron Kearse, S, Clemson - 6'4", 220 lbs. Look at the size of him! And there's room to grow, though hopefully not to the size of his Uncle - the original "freak" Jevon Kearse. Maybe more like his cousin Philip Buchanan. Ahem. Jayron Kearse is likely to rise on the Board as the process moves forward because he's also flashed good range and a willingness to hit. The issues will be maneuverability - can a man that size really cover shifty NFL running backs? - and coachability, because even if he's physically capable of moving that way it will take a lot of well-refined technique to maintain that ability at a higher level. This November scouting report notes a lack of consistency that appears to come from slow play recognition. This December scouting report notes a tendency to take bad angles, which also hints at recognition questions.

2:12

Darian Thompson, S, Boise State - 6'2", 210 lbs. A well rounded player with decent speed, good coverage skills (used to be a Corner), and the ability to play both Free and Strong Safety. If the Steelers are serious about picking a Safety, Darian Thompson will be one of their primary targets in Round 2. The only real flaws are more "limitations" than anything else: as in, he possesses impressive but not awesome athletic talents, his tackling is so-so, and he generally needs the normal amount of work to raise a good college game up to professional standards. This December scouting report is a good place to start. This early December scouting report is a bit more gushing, but still useful if you can swallow phrases like "interception machine" and "uncanny instincts."

2:12

Vonn Bell, S, Ohio State - 5'11", 205 lbs. Good hands, tough physicality, high football IQ, and a nice amount of overall athleticism. The issue is size - he's not all that big and doesn't have a frame that would allow him to pack on a lot of extra. That and sophistication. This goes to an article on "Players Who Should Have Stayed In School," and provides great insight into both the potential and the warning signs surrounding Vonn Bell. It describes Bell as a tremendous athlete, but still far from being a great football player, let alone a great Safety. Big_Jay71 sent him to Pittsburgh in Round 2 in this November mock draft, ahead of Jayron Kearse (who went to Cincinnati). Dani Bostick did this brief BTSC scouting profile way back in October.

2:24

Jeremy Cash, S, Duke - 6'1", 208 lbs. A smart, tough, cover-capable Safety who's willing to hit. Excellent but not awesome athletic talents. There's an injury concern based on a broken wrist that ended his season in December and required surgery. Here is a nice early-process scouting report from the Draft Wire.

2:24

Karl Joseph, S, West Virginia - 5'10", 195 lbs. Joseph is one of those players who everyone loves as a "private" sleeper. This September scouting report still has legs and provides a good overview: A very good and active athlete who's a ferocious hitter despite being 2-4 inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than you'd like. He played only one game in 2015 before suffering a "season-ending, noncontact knee injury during practice." The exact nature of that injury remains a mystery, along with whether it will limit his participation in the Combine drills and/or his rookie year in the NFL. This grade assumes a 100% clean bill of health.

This December scouting report is very similar - a fringe-1st talent at Safety with lots of things you like, but a distinct lack of the size you'd typically want. This brief article seems to agree with Daniel Jeremiah putting him at pick #31 in an early mock. This goes to a very brief scouting profile that is more useful than most because it's somewhat critical and supports that with specific critiques.

2:24

Keanu Neal, SS, Florida - 6'1", 216 lbs. A solid and instinctive player who would probably fit best at Strong Safety due to relatively average coverage skills. This goes to a fascinating article from 2013, when Neal was recruited by Florida.

2:24

Justin Simmons, S, Boston College - 6'3", 201 lbs. A solid all-around safety with no particular holes except a limited upside (athletic gifts that are good but not special) and the need to pack on 20 pounds of grown-man muscle. Simmons' prospects could rise or fall drastically with the Combine, anywhere from the top of Round 2 down to a floor in Round 4-5. Here is a somewhat optimistic scouting report from the Draft Wire. This scouting report from ex-NFL executive Greg Gabriel is pretty darned positive too.

3:01

Miles Killebrew, S, Southern Utah - 6'2", 225 lbs. An athletic marvel from a tiny school who supposedly runs a 4.45 40. The buzz started with a note in this article by the well respected Daniel Jeremiah, which began by quoting an area scout: "He's a better football player than [1st-rounders] Shaq Thompson and Deone Bucannon were when they came out." Jeremiah also touts his supposedly "impeccable" character. The obvious question marks are (a) how much of this is true, and (b) how will he perform against better competition, particularly if he's going to continue at Safety where above-the-neck recognition and reaction times are the only thing keeping Shamarko Thomas out of the lineup. One might also wonder if he'd be better suited to play weakside OLB in a 4-3 than Safety. He'll be one of the bigger attractions at the Senior Bowl.

Here is an interview to get you started (he does like to use the word "pray" a lot). This recorded interview at Field Gulls and this companion article with a highlights reel from Seahawksdraftblog.com may help too.

3:01

Jalen Mills, FS, LSU - 6'1", 189 lbs. Noted for an exceptional football IQ with good coverage skills but not a lot of oomph in his tackling. There was a domestic violence issue that got minor press but seems to have had no legs.

3:12

Deandre Houston-Carson, FS/CB, William & Mary - 6'1", 198 lbs. A promising young man from Mike Tomlin's old school. As discussed in this article and also in this article, DHC was a highly successful Corner until his Senior year when the coaches decided to do some cross training at Free Safety. He took to it so naturally that he ended up playing the position for the entire year. Other than some bad angles, which will get better with experience, and the normal improvement required to match up against NFL talent, he's also a fairly clean prospect. The bottom line is this: With his prototypical size, coverage experience, and good speed Houston-Carson will be a serious Day 2 consideration for a great many teams. Given Pittsburgh's openings for both a rangy outside Corner and a good Safety, the Steelers will be among those who study him the longest and hardest.

4:01

Tyvis Powell, S, Ohio State - 6'2", 210 lbs. Powell will be a Day 3 guy unless he blows up the Combine. If that happens all bets are off. The problem is that he's good at everything but special at nothing. By all accounts his tape is the epitome of a high floor, low ceiling, very safe pick who should enjoy a nice journeyman career if everything works out. Robert Golden has already become that player. Pittsburgh isn't in need of another. What would change that damned-by-faint-praise verdict? Simple. Proving that he has some particular athletic genius of any kind or stripe that might let him raise that ceiling. This scouting report/article is an absolute must-read if you want the inside scoop. I hate to oversell any of the links on this Board, but that one gives you almost everything you could want - including a list of limitations from a very loving eye. I would love to meet this kid and I'd be happy to know him, but I'm just not sure I want him for my team. This goes to a much-inferior scouting profile that serves to confirm the conclusions of the good one.

NOTE: Eddie Jackson of Alabama and Tony Conner of Mississippi have both opted to return for their Senior years.