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Breaking Down the Steelers Team Needs: Part 6, Safety

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Part 6 of our series on the Steelers’ team needs. There should be room for a 3rd player to complement Davis and Edmunds.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Moving on with the series:

This may be Part 6 of this series but that doesn’t mean Safeties are an especially low priority. Yes, Sean Davis has found his home at Free Safety. Hooray! But there is limited depth behind him. Yes, Terrell Edmunds looks like he will grow into a real winner at Strong Safety. Hooray! But he seems most at home in the box, Davis doesn’t do well there, and the backups are all pretty limited. Safety isn’t exactly a ‘concern’ but there is definite room for improvement.

Consider this: The Chargers stuffed the Ravens’ vaunted rushing attack by playing Big Nickel all game; i.e., replacing one of their normal ILB’s with a Safety in order to add speed and range in the middle of the field, with extra coverage ability for the situations where Lamar Jackson actually tried to throw. The Steelers play the Ravens twice each year and would love to have that in their arsenal, but may not have the high quality #3 Safety they’d need to do it. The Steelers also lack rangy depth at Free Safety behind Sean Davis.

OTOH, when the Chargers tried that against New England, the Patriots used a power rushing game up the middle that gashed L.A. for its lack of a true linebacker. Thus the Steelers should be justifiably cautious about viewing Big Nickel as an answer to too many woes. But on the third hand there is Bostic, who is actually quite good as an ILB for running plays, and L.J. Fort, who is pretty good as an ILB for coverage-heavy situations where a Safety may be too small. Doesn’t that mean that Big Nickel would fill out the triad of sub packages and allow the best of all worlds by simple substitution? Then there’s the fourth hand, which points out that offenses can audible out of play calls at the line if the Steelers get in the habit of tipping their defensive calls by installing too-specific packages. And on the...

Wait. I ran out of limbs a few sentences ago, didn’t I? Never mind, the bottom line is always the same. It comes down to utilizing schemes that best utilize the players on your team, drafting for quality and flexibility, and then adjusting for the current week’s matchup. So let’s start by examining the current talent on the roster:

  • FS Sean Davis. Grade: “Solid Starter.” After several years of struggle Sean Davis finally found his niche and played quite well throughout 2018 as the Steelers’ center fielder. The team did not produce as many interceptions as you’d like but there didn’t seem to be a lot of missed opportunities either. It may not be his fault.
  • SS/NICKELBACK Terrell Edmunds. Grade: “Starter With Star Potential.” 2018’s 1st round pick played quite well for being so raw, and showed a definite upward curve as the season went on. He could be truly special if he makes the Sophomore leap that fans expect. OTOH he doesn’t seem to have the range you want for a Cover 2 Safety, might be wasted if asked to play that role, and “potential” is just another word for “hasn’t proven a thing just yet.” Hopes are justified, and even some expectations, but keep the salt shaker handy.
  • SS/NICKELBACK Morgan Burnett. Grade: “Spot Starter Likely To Retire.” Morgan Burnett was a star in Green Bay until the injuries piled up. I was a big fan who actually noticed across the conferences whenever he went down, and suffered every time another multi-week stay on IR got announced. His arrival in the Burgh thrilled me, especially when - reduced as he was by age - the results looked exactly like the solid bridge we needed to give Edmunds time to mature. And then the visits to IR began to pile up. Again. And I suffered even more acutely. So don’t get me wrong: Morgan Burnett still has playing ability, and a lot of it. But he severely lacks when it comes to availability, and that is a major problem. No one should be surprised if he retires, and if he stays we can expect no more than an 8-10 game contribution.
  • SS/NICKELBACK Marcus Allen. Grade = “Unknown but probably a Backup.” Marcus Allen made the 53 all year. Impressive. He didn’t get on the field except for a few special teams plays. Not so impressive. What does that really mean? I could not tell you, but I can say that his draft stock fell in 2018 because of a limited athletic ceiling that will limit him to playing in the box. That hasn’t changed.
  • NICKELBACK/SS Jordan Dangerfield. Grade = “Journeyman Defender, Special Teams Ace, and Quality Locker Room Presence.” Just like always. Dangerfield’s hidden asset is a lot of football class. He plays with true, veteran savvy and has such an intimate knowledge of secondary play that it lets him react a little quicker than his more physically talented colleagues. Retired players like Arthur Moats testify that Dangerfield ably serves as a “playbook tutor” and on-field coach in addition to everything else. He is a good, solid Steeler. But he also has real physical limits that get particularly stretched when he’s asked to backu up in a Free Safety role.

The pattern is clear. Pittsburgh has several Safeties who excel at run support but a lack of depth when it comes to center field range. Consider: when Sean Davis couldn’t answer the bell in week 17 (the Bengals finale), there was no backup who could just step in. Pittsburgh responded by playing three Safeties in basically equal snap counts: Morgan Burnett, Jordan Dangerfield and Terrell Edmunds. If Burnett does indeed retire, or has one of his many missed-for-injury games at the same time as Davis, the hole could turn out to be crucial.

Pittsburgh also suffered from a distinct lack of interceptions in 2018, which is a sin that usually gets assigned to Safeties. Thus conventional wisdom suggests that adding a center field ballhawk might help in that regard. I am not so sure it’s fair to blame the lack of INT’s on this particular position in this particular case. I don’t remember a lot of missed opportunities. But it is a point that needs to be floated nevertheless.

So am I predicting that our Steelers will certainly target a Safety in the 2019 draft? Well... maybe. The class isn’t all that good, either at the top or in BPA bargains later on. There are certainly a few names who’d fit in well and provide good value. They are listed just below. But fans are cautioned that simple rarity is likely to push their draft value up to the point where other positions will boast a clear BPA advantage when Pittsburgh is on the clock. Here is a list of prospects drawn from the draft BTSC Big Board that Nick Farabaugh and I have compiled so far: [fn]

  • 1:15 SS/FS Deionte Thompson, Alabama. 6’2”, 196 lbs. The #1 Safety in the draft and it isn’t particularly close. Thompson is excellent playing in the box, excellent when asked to play center field, excellent coming downhill to make a tackle, excellent in coverage, and a genuine leader of men in the secondary. He, Sean Davis and Terrell Edmunds would give Pittsburgh (I can’t resist it) excellent depth and flexibility for years to come. Big Nickel could easily turn into the Steelers’ favorite package!
  • 2:12 FS Nasir Adderley, Delaware. 6’0”, 195 lbs. A tremendous small school prospect who projects to be a very good center fielder and maybe a hybrid FS/CB, but won’t be much use in the box. His calling cards are tremendous range and some of the best ball skills in the draft. Showed good processing speed too even if it was against lesser competition. He and Juan Thornhill are the targets that Steeler Draftniks point to when they dream of a Cover 2 sub package player who will also be able to push/back up Sean Davis.
  • 2:12 SS Taylor Rapp, Washington. 6’0”, 212 lbs. He’s shown all the assets you want except the range to play center field. His coverage skills are good enough for TE’s, RB’s and quite a few WR’s; he takes good angles toward tackles in space and in run support; and he packs a truly nasty attitude when he arrives on the scene. Taylor Rapp is everything that Marcus Allen and Jordan Dangerfield are, except better. But weren’t we hoping to get a Cover 2 guy to free Terrell Edmunds up for a Nickelback role?
  • 2:12 FS/SS Juan Thornhill, Virginia. 6’1”, 195 lbs. A ballhawking safety with excellent range, great hands and a surprising adeptness at playing the box. Drops because he’s not the best guy for covering the slot, but he would be ideal in the Cover 2, sub package role described above and would also serve as quality prod and/or depth player behind Davis.
  • 2:24 SS/FS Jaquan Johnson, Miami. 5’11”, 190 lbs. He’s a bit on the small side but only physically. Jaquan Johnson is one of those do-everything team leaders and overachievers who just make plays while floating all other boats that much higher. If his body holds up he will be an inevitable fan favorite and secondary anchor for whatever NFL franchise he lands at. But that’s not a small “if” for this kind of living missile. He would be right up there with Adderly and Thornhill if he was two inches taller and 10-15 pounds more solid.
  • 3:01 SS/FS Johnathan Abram, Miss. St. 6’0”, 215 lbs. Great size and speed, willing to mix it up, and able to bring the lumber when he gets there – but also likely to miss the tackle completely and has sometimes been a hair slow to read and react to what’s going on. Interviews will matter a lot, especially since the Steelers would see him as a backup and special teams guy with upside potential. Here is an early January scouting profile.
  • 3:01 FS Ugochukwu Amadi, Oregon. 5’10”, 201 lbs. The descriptions remind you of Sean Davis as a prospect: ‘A cover Safety who’s just a hair short of being able to move outside to Corner and will excel in special teams until he breaks into a lineup.’ A fine Day 2 prospect who’d fit what the Steelers need.
  • 3:01 SS/FS Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Florida. 6’0”, 207 lbs. He’s got boatloads of physical talent, range, and was a vastly improved player in 2018 who suddenly learned how to tackle and also take angles. Still inconsistent but now worth serious Day 2 consideration, especially since he has some coverage chops as well as center field range. Here is an early January scouting profile from Jon Ledyard.
  • 3:01 SS/FS Darnell Savage Jr., Maryland. 5’11”, 195 lbs. A savage hitter (pun fully intended) who is exceptional in the box – almost like a mini-linebacker – but a bit vulnerable in coverage. Plenty of speed and suddenness to play center field too, excellent ball skills, and what seems to be a high football IQ. This nice December scouting profile concludes that his ideal role would be as the sort of Cover 2 Safety Pittsburgh actually needs.
  • 4:01 FS Mike Bell, Fresno St. 6’3”, 203 lbs. Long even for someone of that height, with solid speed, decent coverage skills, and no particular flaws except a lack of aggressiveness and a big unknown when it comes to ball skills.
  • 4:01 FS Jalen Thompson, Wash. St. 6’0”, 190 lbs. Another Safety who’d fit Pittsburgh well as a backup, Thompson lacks only that special ‘extra’ that turns a Safety into a Corner, and that special ‘oomph’ that lets a Free Safety excel closer to the box. He’d also rate higher if his tackling was anything better than awful, but that’s also something a coach can fix.
  • 4:16 FS/SS Marquise Blair, Utah. 6’2”, 195 lbs. One of the more intriguing developmental projects of the draft, Blair is a height/weight/speed project who seems to have a number of significant but coachable flaws in his game. He is eager and physical in the box but takes inconsistent angles and tackles with inconsistent technique. Seems to have great range but doesn’t look good in man coverage. Very aggressive but tends to play too deep as a center fielder. You get the idea. Watch for news from the Senior Bowl, and potentially for a splash at the Combine.
  • 4:16 Marvell Tell III, USC. 6’2”, 195 lbs. All the physical talent you want but he takes terrible angles, isn’t a particularly good tackler when he arrives, and people report a tendency toward lackadaisical play. Interviews will make a big difference.

Bottom line: It’s a pretty thin crop. But there are prospects to watch for, particularly on Day 2. We have several young men graded as excellent value even for the pick at 2:20. Rinse and repeat for the pick at 3:20. But will they be available in light of the supply and demand issues? In my mind the answer will have to be “No” unless the F.O. (a) thinks it has missed out on the targeted ILB’s, (b) thinks that makes it wise to really emphasize a Big Nickel package instead, and (c) is willing to forego the talent available at Corner or Wide Receiver.

[FN] For those who don’t know, we organize the BTSC Big Board by a grade called “Highest Value”. An HV of 1:20 means the player is a reach for the Steelers at any point before Pick # 20 overall but good value at any point from the end of the 1st on. Getting that player in the early 2nd would be fine, while getting him at 2:12 would almost be a steal. Yes, this system results in a certain amount of grade inflation for positions of need because we are talking about the “highest” grade rather than where a player is expected to go; but it’s balanced by never, ever pushing a grade up because of need. Players with the same HV# are more-or-less equivalent and organized alphabetically.