The times, they are a-changin’.
After years of stability at safety, with Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark becoming an extremely dynamic pair of backend defenders who knew one another so well that they could anticipate each other’s thoughts, Clark eventually gave way to free agent Mike Mitchell. Mitchell has developed a reputation as a hard-hitting safety who makes sometimes-questionable decisions, though the “dirty” part of that reputation is largely undeserved. Still, he’s been an asset at times, and at others a detriment, and is nearing 30 years of age. He’s not cheap: the final two years on his contract will cost the Steelers $8.1 million apiece, thanks to his base salary ballooning from under $1 million to $5 million.
Mitchell’s cohort in the deep defensive backfield is Sean Davis, who is coming off a rookie season that saw him name the Steelers’ Rookie of the Year, a well-deserved honor. Once he became a full-time starter, he made impact plays in nearly every game, and was one of the brightest spots on the team during their nine-game winning streak. The 2016 second-round draft pick is a future star, not just in Pittsburgh, but in the NFL as a whole.
Davis looks to have locked down the strong safety position after a few years of trying to find a replacement for future Hall-of-Famer Polamalu. They are enormous shoes to fill, but Davis is off to a solid start.
But with Mitchell’s advancing years and ballooning salary, it’s possible we could see complete turnover in two years at a position group that was once the most stable on the team.
If there was a year to draft Mitchell’s replacement, it would be now.
There are several safeties to keep an eye on. The top guy in the draft, Ohio State’s Malik Hooker, is probably beyond even the best of wishful thinking. But everyone behind him is a legitimate option. LSU’s Jamal Adams will probably be off the board by the 30th pick, but could fall if the stars align.
My two favorite picks for the Steelers, though, are UConn’s Obi Melifonwu and Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers. Melifonwu had an outstanding performance in the Senior Bowl and has a freakish combination of size and speed that would fit the Steelers’ needs perfectly. He’s an excellent coverage safety who could be a huge help in covering the more athletic tight ends in the league, and has the size to even step into a press-man role from time to time.
Peppers could solve the Steelers’ other issue in coverage: underneath routes over the middle by quicker slot receivers. Peppers has had some issues in coverage, but his absolutely ridiculous athleticism allows him to be a safety/linebacker hybrid who can make plays at multiple levels of the field. With the right coaching, he could team up with Ryan Shazier to shut down the short middle of the field. But if both Peppers and Melifonwu are on the board, I’d take Melifonwu without a second thought.
Looking further down, Washington’s Budda Baker is a more traditional free safety, with excellent speed, agility and instincts. His lack of size (5’-10”, 192 pounds) is the biggest thing holding him back, but if the Steelers are looking to use more cover-1, Baker would be a great choice.
If they are willing to take a risk on a raw but extremely promising prospect, Pittsburgh could look toward Michigan State’s Montae Nicholson. Like Melifonwu Nicholson has a rare combination of size and speed, and has shown considerable improvement over his college playing time. He’s going to be a huge boom-or-bust guy, but for someone who could be picked as late as the third or even the fourth round, Nicholson would be worth the risk.
Colorado’s Tedric Thomson is a day-three option who is intriguing. He had a whopping seven interceptions in 2016, which may evoke memories of Gerod Holliman — but the difference is that Thomson is a willing and capable tackler, as well as being a ball hawk.
Finally, Clemson’s Jadar Johnson is another big safety (6’-1”, 210 pounds) with big instincts. His five interceptions and seven passes defended in 2016 are solid numbers, but a lack of speed and some technique issues are going to hold him down to a day-three pick. Still, the technique problems could be coached out, leaving whichever team that drafts him with a highly instinctive defensive back.
If the Steelers draft a capable safety in 2017, it could spell the end of Mitchell’s sometimes-turbulent time with the team. While it’s always tough to see a contributor move on, sometimes, change is a good thing.