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Tomlin building option for who lines up with Fitzpatrick

PHOENIX - The Steelers know they have a star at safety in Minkah Fitzpatrick.

The three-time All-Pro is one of the best players at the position in the NFL and is in the prime of his career.

What the Steelers don't currently know is who will line up alongside Fitzpatrick once the 2023 season kicks off.

Longtime starting strong safety Terrell Edmunds agreed to a one-year deal to join the Philadelphia Eagles last week, leaving a void in the team's lineup.

But speaking at the Annual League Meeting here Monday, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin didn't seem overly concerned.

"It's in development," Tomlin said of safety. "The free agency process is still ongoing, and our draft prep is going well. And so, we're going to add to that bunch, certainly. By what means is to be determined, but there's some credible candidates out there in both pools."

Some of those options – or at least one of them – might be a bit of a surprise.

Tomlin mentioned that he has spoken to newly signed free agent cornerback Patrick Peterson about the possibility of playing some safety at times.

"He's versatile. He is not only in terms of his talents, but his intellect and we're not going to be bashful about moving him around," Tomlin said. "He and I have already had that discussion. I think he's really excited about the prospects of that."

That would be one option in regard to replacing Edmunds – but probably not on a full-time basis.

But he certainly wouldn't be the first former All-Pro cornerback to make such a switch. Others, such as Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive backs Rod Woodson and Charles Woodson have shined late in their careers after moving from cornerback to safety.

At his introductory press conference two weeks ago, Peterson, who turns 33 in July, said he's open to doing more than just playing on the outside at cornerback.

"Going into Year 13, I always used to beg my coaches, like, 'Man, just put me other places,'" Peterson said. "Because I always felt like if you're able to have a quality athlete, you just don't want to limit him into one thing. You want to make it hard on the quarterback. You want to make it as hard as possible on the quarterback throughout downs. So, if you know a guy is going to be lined up in a certain spot every single possession, he's going to know how to avoid that guy."

That's what the Steelers did with Fitzpatrick in 2022 with the addition of Damontae Kazee. Though Kazee missed the first half of the season with a fractured arm, when he returned in the second half, the team utilized a three-safety package with Fitzpatrick and Edmunds that allowed him to play in the slot, in the deep middle or at a variety of other spots on the field.

Kazee also could be in the mix for some different duties in 2023.

And, it might not necessarily matter who is considered the strong safety and who is the free.

"Strong and free are kind of misnomers these days," Tomlin said. "Most guys play right and left. Those that don't, they're somewhat interchangeable based on schematics or calls. I just think that's where we are. Minkah patrols the middle of the field as a home base, and we work off of that."

And the idea is to get the best 11 players on the field for a given situation and then get the playmakers in position to make plays.

And Fitzpatrick, who has 17 interceptions in four seasons with the Steelers, is one of their best playmakers.

"As long as he's a part of us, it's our job to put him in position to be impactful, to wreak havoc, to do the things that he's blessed to have the talents to do," Tomlin said. "He's a smart guy, and those that work with them are versatile. That allows us an opportunity to do those things. I can't imagine that decreasing."

• Tomlin said he has been in contact with wide receiver Diontae Johnson and feels the receiver is working hard to put the 2022 season behind him.

Though Johnson caught a team-high 86 passes for 882 yards, he failed to score a touchdown last season, a year after setting a career-high with eight touchdowns in 2021.

Tomlin doesn't feel the problem of getting into the end zone was necessarily an issue with Johnson.

"It's probably a reflection of us and where we were but I've been pretty transparent about that," Tomlin said. "We were very much a unit and a squad in development a year ago. We don't apologize for that. We did what we had to do to make ourselves competitive and particularly down the stretch, put ourselves in position to win. It provides a platform for us to grow from and those are our intentions. Last year is last year, as far as we're concerned in terms of some of these discussions."

Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

Tomlin feels Johnson will bounce back in 2023.

"That's in his rear view. He and I communicated maybe yesterday. His workouts are going great," Tomlin said. "His leadership among those in his position group is going great. We're excited about the prospects of 2023 and being better."

• Tomlin was asked about star defensive lineman Cam Heyward turning 34 in May and what that means to the team.

Heyward has been with the Steelers since 2011 after being selected in the first round of that draft, but he's seemed to continue to get better over the course of his career.

"I often tell Cam he's seen more good days professionally than he's going to see," Tomlin said. "He doesn't like that reality, but I say it twofold," Tomlin said. "I just want us to feel the urgency of now. The benefit of having worked with that guy for over a decade, I don't take for granted. There needs to be urgency there. But also, just to challenge him continually because we all need it. He needs it. He craves it. He loves to defy the odds. I'm a supporter of that."

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