Steelers-By-Position: Safeties

Posted Mar 7, 2018

Because of declining production, offseason changes to the depth chart at safety can be expected.

Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 14.

Sean Davis, Jordan Dangerfield, Robert Golden, Malik Golden, Mike Mitchell, J.J. Wilcox
(Free Agent Scorecard: None)

The Steelers spent a second-round draft choice on Sean Davis in 2016, and so far the investment looks to be paying off. A full-time starter since the opening game of his rookie season, Davis ended his second pro season as the team’s leading tackler (90), he tied for the team lead in interceptions (three), and tied for third on the team in passes defensed (eight). Davis had a rough afternoon when he was assigned to cover Rob Gronkowski in a critical December games against New England, but there have been a lot of more experienced, more decorated safeties who’ve failed with that assignment as well.

The specifics of that afternoon had Davis hold Gronkowski to six catches for 99 yards until New England’s game-winning drive when the Patriots tight end caught passes of 26, 26, and 17 yards to set up Dion Lewis’ touchdown. But on the first of those, Davis’ deep help never happened, and the other two were simply examples of why Gronkowski is the best tight end in football and Tom Brady is an all-time great quarterback.

Davis is the team’s future at the safety position, whether he ends up playing strong safety or free safety, and the issue the Steelers are going to have to address over the course of this offseason is whether they have enough to go along with him moving forward.

Mike Mitchell will be 31 before the start of training camp, and he is entering the final year of the five-year, $25 million contract he signed with the team in 2014 as an unrestricted free agent. His 2018 salary is reported to be $5 million, and the team will be deciding whether that’s too much for a player who has four interceptions, four fumble recoveries, and 23 passes defensed during 60 games over four seasons with the team.

Because of the way the game has come to be officiated, Mitchell has been forced to change the way he plays, and to his credit he largely has done that. He also has shown himself to be willing to play through injuries. But does his productivity and his range match his salary cap number? That’s a decision the Steelers will be making in the near future.

Mitchell and Davis have been the starting safeties in each of the last two seasons, and the rest of the depth chart here has been able to contribute little except on special teams. That’s an important area, special teams is, and defensive backs are critical to that phase, but it’s also necessary for the safeties to be factors on defense as well, and it’s difficult to make the case that they were.

Robert Golden is a core special teams player, and he has real value as the personal protector on the punt team; Jordan Dangerfield has bounced between the 53-man roster and the practice squad for a few seasons now; and the acquisition of J.J. Wilcox in a trade with Tampa Bay right before the start of the regular season was supposed to be an addition of a safety who could make plays on the ball, but Wilcox sabotaged himself by committing a bunch of costly penalties on special teams.

Once upon a time, the Steelers consistently deployed safeties who had ball skills and recorded takeaways in bunches. In chronological order, Mike Wagner played in 119 games (116 starts) over 10 seasons, and he had 36 interceptions and 12 fumble recoveries for 48 takeaways; Donnie Shell played in 201 games (162 starts) over 14 seasons and he had 52 interceptions and 19 fumble recoveries for 71 takeaways; Darren Perry played in 126 games (all starts) over seven seasons, and he had 32 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries for 40 takeaways; and Troy Polamalu played in 158 games (142 starts) over 12 seasons, and he had 32 interceptions and seven fumble recoveries for 39 takeaways.

The Steelers led the NFL, and set a franchise record, last season with 56 sacks, but there are two areas in which the defense often came up short. Those areas were run defense, in which poor tackling often was a factor, and lack of takeaways. And both of those areas could be impacted positively by better play from the safeties.

There are six safeties currently on the roster, and only Davis is a lock to be around for the start of training camp. There are bound to be others currently on the roster who will be at Saint Vincent College in late July because there is only so much roster remodeling that can take place over the course of a single NFL offseason. But it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Steelers used a couple draft picks on safeties, and while there isn’t a lot of salary cap space available the team also might make an effort to try to find some value among the available unrestricted free agents. At the very least, adding another Sean Davis-type talent is going to be necessary for the defense to continue to evolve into the kind of unit it’s going to need to be to contend for a championship.

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