SAFETIES – 6**
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1 unrestricted – Robert Golden)
He can handle the physical demands of the position, and he also is an asset on special teams. But can he become what the team will need at the position from a coverage standpoint? That's the unknown, and since he has been trying to find a permanent spot on an NFL roster since 2013, there have to be some issues with his game somewhere. Again, he can play special teams, and that gives him a chance at a roster spot.
Along with Artie Burns and Stephon Tuitt, Davis, who will be 23 when the 2017 season begins, is a big part of the future of the Steelers secondary. The Steelers put a lot on Davis' plate early in terms of learning different positions/roles, and so it wasn't surprising that his best performances came when they dialed some of that back. Over the course of his rookie season, Davis was physical when he needed to be and he also showed enough coverage ability to be a viable option as a slot defender. Versatile safeties are a big help when offenses go to hurry-up mode, because they can line up in different spots and reduce the need to change personnel groupings. Good player, who will become a bigger part of the solution quickly.
In a general sense, Golden is similar to Dangerfield, but he has been on the Steelers roster for five full NFL seasons because he's a better version. After signing as an undrafted rookie from Arizona, Golden grew into a guy who has been voted special teams captain multiple times. He opened the 2016 as a starting safety alongside Mike Mitchell, but he lost the job to Sean Davis following the game against the Cowboys. Not that the team's four-game losing streak was Golden's fault, but after Davis replaced him as a starter the Steelers went on to win nine games in a row, including two in the playoffs. Golden's niche in the NFL is special teams first, defense second.
At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Hagen is another of those players who looks good in the uniform. He entered the NFL from Liberty as an undrafted rookie with the Rams in 2015, and after they cut him before the start of the regular season he spent a brief time on their practice squad. He signed a futures contract with the Steelers in January 2016. Last summer, Hagen had three tackles and a pass defensed on defense, plus two more tackles on special teams, and after being waived he bounced back and forth on the team's practice squad. Besides his height and weight, what's also intriguing about Hagen is that he had 15 interceptions in 41 college games, with 14 of those coming during his final two seasons.
Mitchell will enter the fourth year of the five-year contract he signed in 2014 as an unrestricted free agent from Carolina, and he has improved over each of his seasons in Pittsburgh. One of the things a defense needs is a physical presence in the middle of the secondary, and Mitchell has provided that for the Steelers while re-making his game to conform to the NFL's player safety guidelines. Mitchell is and always has been a play-the-man safety, and throughout the 2016 season he was delivering the ball-separating hits without drawing penalties. A portion of the fan base never has warmed to Mitchell's style of play, but they're wrong about his value. Defensive backfields need thumpers, and Mitchell is a thumper who doesn't draw penalties for his thumping. There are things Mitchell can improve upon, as is the case with all players, but he is undoubtedly part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
An unrestricted free agent-to-be, Thomas finds himself in a similar situation as Ryan Shazier – that being a player who likely needs a change of scenery. In his four seasons with the team, Thomas has been given opportunities to play on defense, but missed assignments and mental errors plagued him to the extent that the coaches lost confidence in him. Thomas is a very good special teams player, good enough that the units suffered whenever he was injured and unable to play. But for the Steelers, that's all Thomas ever will be – a special teams player. If he wants to play on defense, that will have to be elsewhere, based on his history with this team.