Steelers eyeing numbers at safety in NFL Draft
The job requirements of the NFL safety have evolved, and the Steelers have changed with the times.
Targeting the secondary as an area that needed upgraded, the Steelers released veteran Mike Mitchell and replaced him with the more versatile Morgan Burnett, who is almost two years younger. Backup Robert Golden also was cut and replaced by Nat Berhe, who primarily plays special teams.
The Burnett signing also gives the Steelers a chance to shift Sean Davis from strong to free safety. But it doesn’t signal that the Steelers are done trying to strengthen the safety position.
Perhaps it won’t come in the first round, maybe not even the second, but the Steelers are expected to use one of their seven picks on a safety in the upcoming NFL Draft.
NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks, a former cornerback in the league, said teams are always on the lookout for multi-dimensional safeties in order to compete in these pass-happy times.
“Before you were looking for the big, physical guy to come and be the eighth guy in the box, that can be an effective run defender and really make his play sometimes near the line of scrimmage,” Brooks said on a recent conference call. “Now, with more teams going 11 personnel, one back, three wide receivers, you need those safeties to be able to play comfortably in space, to be able to have the skills to play in man-to-man and zone in the open field, have ball skills to be able to kind of turn the ball over while also possessing those skills as tacklers and run defenders.
“It’s really hard to find the right kind of guys that have that versatility.”
Davis is one such player, Brooks believes. Burnett, who was used as a hybrid defender in Green Bay, is another. Also on the roster is veteran J.J. Wilcox, who played sparingly last season after being acquired from Tampa Bay. But he could be released in a salary-cap move if the Steelers add a safety in the draft.
If none of the top four inside linebackers is around by the No. 28 pick, the Steelers could be enticed to take Stanford safety Justin Reid. At 6-foot, 207 pounds, he is similar to Davis in size, and he was one of four safeties the Steelers hosted for a pre-draft visit.
Some analysts think the Steelers might wait until the second round and try to select Alabama’s Ronnie Harrison, a two-year starter who decided to forego his senior season.
NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah called Harrison a “classic Steeler-type player. He can play high, play low, he’s a force player, he’s smart, he’s tough. He kind of reminds me of a Steeler. … The other safety I would maybe throw into the mix as a movement free safety type would be Jessie Bates from Wake Forest, who has incredible range and ball skills.”
Like Harrison, Bates is considered a second-round draft pick. General manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin scouted Bates at Wake Forest’s pro day and were seen dining with the young safety.
If the Steelers look for a value pick on the third day, they could target any of four players from area Division I programs who are on draft boards.
â¢ Jordan Whitehead. The 5-11 Pitt safety, who also played offense, declared for the draft after his junior season, although coach Pat Narduzzi wished Whitehead had stayed in school one more year.
“I feel I bring a lot of versatility to the table,” Whitehead said at the NFL Combine. “There are a lot of great players in this draft. But I bring a lot of versatility. I feel I’m an athlete, and I’m ready to compete at that level.”
• Kyzir White. At 6-2, 218 pounds, he spent the past two seasons playing the “Spur” hybrid safety/linebacker spot at West Virginia. Last season, he was effective against the run (7 1⁄2 tackles for loss) and against the pass (three interceptions).
Asked at the NFL Combine about the attributes he would bring to a team, White responded, “I think they get a very hard-nosed player, a guy that has great effort, (is) passionate, a physical guy, team player.”
â¢ Marcus Allen. At 6-2, 215, he was a big tackler at Penn State, finishing fifth on the school’s all-time list. He also was one of the players the Steelers brought in for a visit.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said Allen is “great in the box, will strike you, will get after people in the run game. I think he’s got some range in the pass game, and I think he can cover running backs and, to an extent, tight ends.”
• Troy Apke. The Mt. Lebanon graduate ran a 4.34 40 and had a 41-inch vertical leap at the NFL Combine. He is 6-1, 200. Mayock was impressed by Apke’s speed but thinks he needs time to develop at the NFL level.
“He can play special teams for a period of time to earn himself time to learn how to play the safety position,” Mayock said. “I think he can also play some dime linebacker.”