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Steelers-by-position: Safeties

Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 16.

Terrell Edmunds, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Miles Killebrew, Tre Norwood, Donovan Stiner
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1 unrestricted – Terrell Edmunds)

It was an unusual season for this position within the Steelers defense, and the root cause was the unit's difficulty in stopping the run. The Steelers finished last in the NFL in rushing yards per game allowed (146.1) and average yards per carry (5.0), and not surprisingly opponents responded to that by attempting 498 running plays.

As a result, starting safeties Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick found themselves in situations where they were required to provide an unusual amount of run support over the course of a regular season in the normally pass-happy NFL. Fitzpatrick led the team with 124 tackles, Edmunds was third with 89, and having the starting safeties making that many tackles typically is not a good thing for any defense.

Edmunds, in his fourth NFL season after being the team's No. 1 pick in 2018, arguably turned in his best year in 2021 with two interceptions, one sack, six passes defensed, eight tackles for loss, and according to Pro Football Reference opposing quarterbacks had a rating of 63.7 when targeting him. Extremely reliable during his entire NFL career, Edmunds started all 17 regular season games plus the Wild Card Round Game vs. Kansas City. He played 1,145 defensive snaps (98 percent) over the course of the regular season. During his tenure with the Steelers, Edmunds has missed only one regular season game and played 4,011 snaps on defense.

By necessity, Fitzpatrick was used to help the run defense, and even though his two interceptions were his fewest since coming to the Steelers in that 2019 trade, he still made significant contributions by making plays on the ball in critical situations. One of those came in the final 30 seconds of the regular season finale vs. Baltimore when he knocked the ball loose from receiver Marquise Brown along the sideline to cause an incomplete pass and allow the game to go into overtime, and the Steelers ultimately won to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Miles Killebrew quickly emerged as a core special teams player, and he finished tied-for-sixth on the team in special teams tackles and added two blocked punts. Rookie Tre Norwood played 388 snaps as part of the sub-package defenses, and he had one interception and four passes defensed to go along with 38 tackles.

Only six teams had opposing offenses attempt more running plays than the 498 vs. the Steelers: the New York Jets (525), Houston (523), Atlanta (519), Detroit (518), Seattle and the Los Angeles Chargers (509 apiece).

There would seem to be two items of business to attend to here, with the more pressing having to do with Edmunds since he can become an unrestricted free agent on March 16. The Steelers opted not to exercise the fifth-year option on Edmunds' rookie contract, and while that amount of money could be considered excessive for a safety with only six takeaways (five interceptions and one fumble recovery) in 64 career regular season games, Edmunds has continually improved over the course of his career, and Coach Mike Tomlin has mentioned that his availability (only one missed regular season game in four seasons) should not be taken for granted.

The other item of business is to secure Fitzpatrick with a contract extension, but that is a bit less timely because the Steelers exercised the fifth-year option on his rookie contract to bind him to the team through the 2022 season at a salary of $10.6 million for one year. The Steelers have until the start of the 2022 regular season to get something done with Fitzpatrick, but Edmunds can hit the open market in less than a month.

While some fans might be salivating over the prospect of how the Steelers might choose to utilize their rather unprecedented amount of salary cap space, look for them to allocate a percentage of that to securing Fitzpatrick's services via a contract extension and another portion to see what they might be able to get done with Edmunds.
NEXT: Interior O-line
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