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Steelers-By-Position: Safety

Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 17.

SAFETIES (6)
John Battle, Antoine Brooks, Sean Davis, Jordan Dangerfield, Terrell Edmunds, Minkah Fitzpatrick
(Free Agent Scorecard: 2 unrestricted – Sean Davis, Jordan Dangerfield)

Take a look at the best photos taken of the Steelers safeties during the 2020 season

A LAST LOOK AT 2020
One is a back-to-back first-team All-Pro, and the other is taking some time to grow into the job. Both are former first-round draft picks, and both are starting safeties for the Steelers. But in terms of the perception of the fan base, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds are opposites.

Let's begin with what Edmunds has been through the first three seasons of his NFL career since the team made him its first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the 28th overall selection. A starter right away, Edmunds, who played his rookie year as a 21-year-old, has played 2,866 defensive snaps, or 91.1 percent of the Steelers' total on defense from 2018-20, in addition to another 346 snaps on special teams. He has been available for 47 of the 48 regular season games during his tenure and has been credited with 251 total tackles in those.

What Edmunds hasn't been is an immediate lock-down coverage safety, a playmaker, a ballhawk that is the expectation when a team spends a No. 1 pick on the position. In other words, he's not Fitzpatrick.

As noted, Edmunds has played a lot of snaps for the Steelers over his first three seasons, but he has only three interceptions and 15 passes defensed in those 2,866 defensive snaps. In his rookie season of 2018, opposing quarterbacks completed 59.5 percent of the passes they threw to receivers covered by Edmunds with a passer rating of 83, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com; in 2019 it was 72 percent completed with a rating of 131.6; and in 2020 it was 55.6 percent completed with a rating of 70.8.

Take a look at photographs of Steelers S Terrell Edmunds from the 2020 season

The Steelers are going to have to make a significant decision on Edmunds soon, and that's whether to exercise the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. While some might interpret the decision as a referendum on Edmunds as a starting safety, it's really more of a decision about how they view his contributions within the context of the salary cap.

It's assumed the Steelers are going to lose one of the first-round picks off their defense this offseason (Bud Dupree), and the team already is committed to eight-figure cap numbers for both Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, and it's going to have to commit significant dollars soon to upcoming contracts (T.J. Watt, Fitzpatrick, and Devin Bush), and all of that is going to impact the decision on Edmunds. Will they be able to sign him once they budget for all of those other contracts?

But working in Edmunds' favor is that he has improved over each of his seasons in the NFL, and before he injured a shoulder late in the 2020 regular season he was playing his best football. Also, playing next to Fitzpatrick has helped Edmunds, and even All-Pros need a complement.

There is no argument that Fitzpatrick is a cornerstone, a ballhawk in the middle of the field around whom a difference-making defense can be built. Since arriving via that trade with Miami on the Tuesday before the third game of the 2019 season, Fitzpatrick has authored some highlights, but his first appearance in a Steelers uniform has to be considered among his most impressive.

Five days after being traded, Fitzpatrick was in the starting lineup in a road game against the soon-to-be NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers. He played all 79 defensive snaps and finished with five tackles, an interception, and a forced fumble. In 30 games with the Steelers, Fitzpatrick has played all but 12 defensive snaps and posted 20 passes defensed, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, and nine interceptions.

Citing the same Pro-Football-Reference.com analysis used for Edmunds, in 2019 opposing quarterbacks completed 52 percent on Fitzpatrick with a rating of 46.3, and in 2020 it was 50 percent completed with a rating of 65.7.

Take a look at photographs of Steelers S Minkah Fitzpatrick from the 2020 season

ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
The nine interceptions Minkah Fitzpatrick posted in 2019-20 are the most over back-to-back seasons by a Steelers safety not named Troy Polamalu since Darren Perry had nine in 1995-96.

A LOOK AHEAD TO 2021
The Steelers have been fortunate with the availability of both Edmunds and Fitzpatrick, because the others on the depth chart apparently are viewed by the coaching staff as significant drop-offs because Davis (57 snaps), Jordan Dangerfield (20 snaps), and rookie Antoine Brooks (29 snaps) rarely saw the field on defense in 2020, even in the variety of sub-packages employed over the course of the season.

But that doesn't mean those players don't have value or potential. Dangerfield is a key component to special teams, and he not only serves as the personal protector on the punt team but he also led the team with 10 special teams tackles in 2020. Davis was back for a second stint with the Steelers and most likely would've been the first guy off the bench had something happened to either of the starting safeties. And Brooks was inactive for 12 of the 16 regular season games, but the Steelers defense isn't a simple one to learn, especially for a rookie who had no offseason or preseason games to aid in his development.

Being able to get by without having to use backup safeties on defense might not work in 2021. Cam Sutton and Mike Hilton, both of whom were mainstays in the sub-packages, both can become unrestricted free agents on March 17, as can Davis.

The secondary soon could look very different from the way it did following the Wild Card Round loss to the Browns, and what the Steelers end up doing at safety over the course of the offseason very well could be impacted by what happens to the depth chart at cornerback.

NEXT: Tight Ends

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