Steelers-by-position: Safeties


Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 9:

(Free Agent Scorecard: 1 unrestricted – Robert Golden)


There is no way to confirm this, but one calendar year ago the Steelers' vision likely had Robert Golden asserting himself and becoming a starting safety, with Will Allen getting playing time in situational football as an extra defensive back and on special teams. Thomas wasn't up to his part of that scenario, and so Allen started 13 games (he missed three in a row with an ankle injury) and finished with career highs in sacks with four and passes defensed with eight. Allen will be 34 on June 17, though, and at that age it becomes more of a gamble to count on a player being healthy enough to count on him as a full-time starter. It is a stated goal of this offseason to get better in the secondary, and the Steelers may choose to explore their options, but there are no guarantees they can do better than Allen.

Dangerfield always manages to show enough to entice the Steelers, but he never seems to have enough to earn a permanent spot. It's likely that if the offenses in the NFL ran the football with the frequency that was the norm 20 years ago Dangerfield would have a job with an NFL team as an in-the-box safety and special teams contributor. Safeties don't get to play in-the-box like that anymore, and it remains to be seen if Dangerfield can raise the other aspects of his game to compensate.

The 2015 season was something of a turning point for Golden, because it was his fourth in the NFL and it was the one in which he provided the strongest evidence that he could be more than a special teams player. Toward the end of last season, Golden had himself a role on defense in situational football, and that particular personnel grouping was effective. He finished with 36 tackles, an interception, and four passes defensed, all of which were accumulated during a season in which Golden played the most defensive snaps since signing with the team as an undrafted rookie from Arizona in 2012. What the team thought of him was illustrated when Golden was the first of the Steelers' UFAs to get a new deal. He agreed to a three-year contract on March 7.

Signed to a futures contract on Jan. 20, Hagen, 6-foot-3, 205, was a hybrid linebacker-safety at Liberty. In 2014, his final college season, he finished with 108 tackles and eight interceptions. He signed with the Rams as an undrafted rookie after the 2015 draft, and he was waived when the team made its roster cuts to get down to 53 players.


The best photos of Safety Mike Mitchell from the 2015 season thus far.

A polarizing figure among the team's nation of fans since signing as an unrestricted free agent two years ago, Mitchell is not a Pro Bowl safety nor is he deserving of the blame for all of the Steelers defensive deficiencies since he joined the team. Whatever the Steelers manage to accomplish over the course of this offseason in the way of improving their defensive backfield, it seems logical to assume Mitchell would still have a significant role to play this season. There is not a realistic scenario I can see in which Mitchell isn't one of the two best safeties on the roster at the start of the regular season. Maybe some fans should appreciate the things Mitchell adds to the defense instead of always complaining about what he's not.

The way it was supposed to work was for Thomas to be coming off his first season as a full-time starter while playing to a level the Steelers expected when they made him a fourth-round draft pick in 2013. Didn't happen that way, and Thomas was little more than a special teams player in what was his third NFL season. Sometimes, injuries were holding him back, but there were times when he was healthy and getting playing time where busted assignments and mental mistakes were his undoing. Does Coach Mike Tomlin have any more confidence in Thomas' ability to be a starting safety in the NFL? How the rest of this offseason unfolds could provide the answer to that question, but it's also possible Tomlin has made up his mind.

So far Ventrone has been unable to do what Robert Golden pulled off in 2015, which is transition from a "special teams only" designation to one where the guy also is capable of contributing on offense or defense. Both Golden and Ventrone are safeties, and the fact Ventrone keeps being brought back is testimony to the quality of his special teams contributions. But when it comes time to cutting the roster to 53, coaches often are hesitant to keep "special teams only" guys.

A Pitt product, Vinopal, 5-foot-10, 197 pounds safety, was timed between 4.49 and 4.56 seconds in the 40-yard dash, recorded a 35-inch vertical jump, and bench-pressed 225 pounds 26 times during his pro day in 2015. He wasn't invited to the 2015 NFL Combine, and he ended up signing with Dallas as an undrafted rookie. He signed a futures contract with the Steelers on Jan. 19.

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