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Steelers All-Time All Rookie Team: Part 9 Safeties

Part 9: Safeties

San Francisco 49ers v Pittsburgh Steelers
Look out, Joe — that’s a torpedo with your name on it...
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

We’re winding down the Steelers All-Time All Rookie team. Today, part 8: the safeties. The first seven essays are linked below, but for those who missed them, here’s how it works: I’ll include an introduction to account for some players you may expect to see, but who didn’t make the cut. Then I’ll list starters, backups, and others worth consideration — followed with a poll for Steelers Nation to weigh in.

The Ground Rules:

1 — I’m looking at the entire history of the Steelers/Pirates/Steagles/Card-Pitt.

2 — The player must have begun his career with Pittsburgh.

3 — Only the rookie year will factor in; a great career is unnecessary.

4 — The poll and the comments section are open — have at it.

(Side note: I can’t figure out how to let everyone vote on multiple players, so the poll is just for the top rookie safety, I guess. Oh well.)

For past essays:

Part 1: Quarterbacks
Part 2: Running Backs
Part 3: Wide Receivers
Part 4: Tight Ends
Part 5: Offensive Line
Part 6: Defensive Line
Part 7: Linebackers
Part 8: Cornerbacks

And now, on to the safeties.


Safety:

As per usual, there are a number of familiar and impressive names that you won’t see listed below. The most obvious is Minkah Fitzpatrick, who (as most of us know) started his career with the Miami Dolphins, just three years ago. Not a Steeler rookie means not on this list. Ryan Clark played alongside Sean Taylor in Washington as his career opened, so he’s out as well. Some of you probably remember Chris Hope as well (starter on the 2005 Super Bowl champion). Hope was a Steeler, but was mostly a special teamer in 2002, making no starts and registering very few stats as a rookie.

Two Steelers safeties went into the Hall of Fame this year (that’s got to be the first time that’s ever happened), but neither of them are below. Troy Polamalu was a first round draft pick in 2003, but he couldn’t crack the starting lineup his rookie year, and recorded zero takeaways all season. (He did record 2.0 sacks, which is kind of impressive, but he really did practically nothing else.) Meanwhile, Donnie Shell was an undrafted rookie in 1974 (the greatest rookie class of all time in any sport). But he finished the year with one start and one pick — he wouldn’t become a regular starter until his fourth season.

So who does that leave? Let’s see:


Starters:

Paul Cameron (1954)

Does this guy look 22 to you? I’d swear he was 40 in this shot.

One year wonder
Led Steelers with 7 interceptions (team rookie record, #7 in NFL)
#4 in NFL in INT return yards (118 yards)
Also three fumble recoveries (10th in NFL)

Paul Cameron is the definition of the “one year wonder.” In 1954, he ranked #7 in the NFL with a gaudy 7 interceptions, placing behind such legends as Night Train Lane, Emlen Tunnell, and Tom Landry. With his three fumble recoveries, the rookie wound up with 10 (seriously TEN) takeaways in only 12 games. Somehow he didn’t make the Pro Bowl that year.

The 1954 Steelers were a deeply mediocre 5-7, and Cameron (who must have seemed like a star in the making) didn’t come back for season #2. That’s right — a college star who played like a rock star his rookie season, simple retired after that. The 50s seem like the beginnings of the modern era (in the NFL), but this is still a side-job for a lot of these guys...


Darren Perry (1992)

Darren Perry Steelers
I was going to make a joke about Perry wearing Minkah Fitzpatrick’s number, but Fitzpatrick wasn’t actually born when this photo was taken. And now I just feel bad.

Started all 16 games on AFC’s #1 seed
Led Steelers with 6 interceptions (#7 in NFL)
Added 61 tackles and a fumble recovery
NFL All Rookie team

This one surprised me a little. I had Carnell Lake penciled into this role before I looked at numbers. (And I didn’t even remember Darren Perry at first.) But goodness – on a team featuring Lake, Rod Woodson, Tim McKyer, Deion Figures, and DJ Johnson, Perry led the Steelers in interceptions as a rookie with six. SIX! The only Steeler to record six interceptions since the millennium is Troy Polamalu, and he’s in the Hall of Fame now. Perry had a decent career, including starting in the Super Bowl the next season, and did some coaching in Pittsburgh for a while. But his finest season has got to be that rookie campaign.


Backups:

Carnell Lake (1989)

STEELERS V RAIDERS
Lake and Perry were both DB coaches in the last 20 years. Both were better players.

Started 15 games, plus two playoff games, on storybook 1989 team
Transitioned from college linebacker
Recorded 1 interception and 1 sack
6 fumble recoveries (#1 on Steelers; #3 in NFL)
Also #2 on Steelers with 2 forced fumbles, #4 with 70 tackles
AFC Defensive Player of the Week (wk 6, revenge win over Cleveland)

Carnell Lake is one of those players who I quietly maintain deserve Hall of Fame consideration. He probably doesn’t have the INT numbers, but despite being a converted college linebacker, he was a five-time Pro Bowler — twice at free safety, once at strong safety, and twice at cornerback(!), where he was also an All Pro in 1997. For a linebacker. Crazy.

Lake’s rookie year, he started 15 games (again, despite undergoing a significant position change). Part of the 1989 squad that lost its opening game 51-0 at home against Cleveland, then 41-10 in week 2 (to division rival Cincinnati), Lake helped steady the secondary as they made the most improbable playoff run in team history. He was even AFC defensive player of the week in week 6, as the Steelers got an unthinkable revenge win against the Browns, 17-7 in Cleveland.


Thomas Everett (1987)

Pittsburgh Steelers v Washington Redskins
I don’t know why, but I’m really glad that Thomas Everett left Dallas before SBXXX.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Played in 12 games, started 9
3 interceptions (tied with Delton Hall for #2 on Steelers)
Added one forced fumble, and two fumble recoveries
NFL All Rookie Team

Thomas Everett is remembered in NFL annals as a part of the first two Cowboys Super Bowl squads in the 1990s, but he started his career with five years in Pittsburgh. Part of a promising young secondary (alongside Rod Woodson, Delton Hall, and the previous entry, Carnell Lake) Everett was a solid player on an inconsistent and improving team.

As a rookie, Everett played in all 12 non-strike games, starting 9, recording five takeaways and a forced fumble, while making an impressive 72 tackles. He joined Hall on the NFL’s 1987 All Rookie team (which, crazy, didn’t include Woodson), and stayed in the starting lineup for the rest of Chuck Noll’s coaching career (before being replaced by Darren Perry, of all people). That’s high enough praise for me.


Mike Wagner (1971)

Steelers Mike Wagner
Holy crap, George Gojkovich took this picture? I used photos of Maurkice Pouncey that he took earlier. Man, is this guy like 100?
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Started 12 games as rookie
Two interceptions for 53 return yards (#2 on team in yards)

Mike Wagner was, of course, a part of another young Steelers defense that rounded into shape a couple years after his arrival. An 11th round pick in the same draft that brought Jack Ham, Dwight White, and Ernie Holmes, Wagner stepped right into the starting lineup in 1971. He would eventually lead the NFL with 8 interceptions in 1973 (while also recovering five fumbles), make two Pro Bowls, and take home four Super Bowl rings.

As a rookie, both of Wagner’s interceptions went for long returns, prefiguring his big-play ability (for the next four years, he had at least 75 return yards in INTs or fumbles). And despite being one of the unsung Steel Curtain members, he makes my team.


Also considered:

Terrell Edmunds (2018)

NFL: NOV 08 Panthers at Steelers
Terrell Edmunds always looks bigger than I expect him to.
Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Played all 16 games, started 15
One interception for 35 return yards, and four passes defensed
Added 78 tackles, 3 QB hits, and one fumble recovery and 1.0 sack
#2 on team in INTs and tackles

Terrell Edmunds wasn’t supposed to start as a rookie. He was tabbed as a project out of Virginia Tech, to sit behind veteran free agent pickup Morgan Burnett (remember him?). But Burnett was made of glass, and Edmunds eventually started 15 games, finishing second on the team in tackles. He was also second in interceptions, but only snagged a single one. It’s hard to remember now (since the Steelers have been the best team at creating takeaways in 2019 and 2020), but this team was allergic to INTs. So I can’t really give a ton of credit for that.


Sean Davis (2016)

NFL: NOV 24 Steelers at Colts
Good luck, Sean. I don’t know why it never quite worked out.
Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Played in all 16 games, starting 9, on AFC Runner Up
Started all three playoff games
One INT, 5 passes defensed, one fumble recovery
70 tackles (#4 on Steelers)
Added 1.5 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and 4 QB Hits

Sean Davis is an enigma to me. He always seemed pretty solid — a decent coverage man, a good tackler, and a guy with decent hands; more polished than his draft-mate, Artie Burns (who wasn’t bad early on either). But something never quite came together. He eventually became expendable when (after a season-ending injury in 2019) the Steelers traded a #1 pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick (arguably the best safety in the NFL). But his first few years, including his rookie season, weren’t bad at all.

As a rookie, he started nine regular season games, and all three playoff contests (which includes the ugly loss to New England, but also two powerful victories against Miami and Kansas City). That seems appropriate to me: pretty good, but not quite good enough. He’s a Colt now, but had some promise in Pittsburgh for a couple years.


Willie Daniel (1961)

This guy’s face could be a hood ornament. I feel like it could knock through brick.

Played all 14 games, starting 13
#2 on Steelers with 3 interceptions
76 yards on INT returns (#3 on team), plus one fumble recovery

Willie Daniel’s best season might be his first. He started 13 games and recorded four takeaways for a mediocre team. He was a part of an uneven squad, featuring young talent like Mo Pottios and Buddy Dial, and old-timers nearing the end, like Bobby Layne and John Henry Johnson. That creates a pretty small window to go for the gold, and the Steelers couldn’t get over it. Daniel showed plenty of promise at the start, though.


Tony Dungy (1977)

Steelers Tony Dungy
Is it just me, or do Dungy’s sideburns look like they’re fake? Like, they’re not quite attached to his mustache or his hairline. Who are you trying to fool, Tony?
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Played in all 14 games in middle of 1970s Super Bowl run
Tied for 4th on the team with 3 interceptions

Tony Dungy isn’t really All Rookie material (honestly, he’d be behind Polamalu and Shell) — which is why he’s in the “also considered” section. But I wanted to highlight his presence in this superstar defense. Dungy learned more from Chuck Noll than people usually admit. His Tampa-2 defense was really just a recreated Steel Curtain — complete with a star interior lineman (Joe Green / Warren Sapp), athletic rangy linebackers (Jack Ham & Jack Lambert / Derrick Brooks & ex-Steeler Hardy Nickerson), a hard-hitting safety (Donnie Shell / John Lynch), and at least one star corner (Mel Blount / Ronde Barber). It’s almost man for man.

Of course, the Steelers versions were better across the board, but still..

Anyway, Dungy only stuck around for two years (somehow leading the team in INTs in 1978), before becoming the youngest coordinator in the NFL when Noll brought him back in 1984. And he used to have hair.

Poll

All Rookie Safeties

This poll is closed

  • 11%
    Paul Cameron (1954)
    (15 votes)
  • 38%
    Derren Perry (1992)
    (51 votes)
  • 31%
    Carnell Lake (1989)
    (41 votes)
  • 0%
    Thomas Everett (1987)
    (1 vote)
  • 14%
    Mike Wagner (1971)
    (19 votes)
  • 0%
    Terrell Edmunds (2018)
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    Sean Davis (2016)
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Willie Daniel (1961)
    (1 vote)
  • 1%
    Tony Dungy (1977)
    (2 votes)
  • 0%
    Other
    (1 vote)
132 votes total Vote Now

Last round coming: special teams and coaches. Stay tuned. The season is about to begin...