The Pittsburgh Steelers made no bones about wanting to improve their defense during this offseason, as they stated during the draft after coming up with six of eight selections on defense, and three in the first four rounds. With the retirement of Troy Polamalu, the safety position in particular will have a different hierarchy this year.
As Dave Bryan alluded to yesterday in his first mock 53-man roster of the offseason, special teams performance will be critical in determining the makeup of the safety unit—not only who makes the team, but how many. Of course, special teams play is essential for almost every player toward the bottom of the roster, but it just so happens to be especially true for the Steelers at safety.
In fact, the majority of the Steelers’ depth chart at safety last season consisted of key special teams contributors—basically all of the safeties that were not starting. Will Allen, Shamarko Thomas, Robert Golden, and Ross Ventrone all played key roles in establishing a fairly strong coverage unit on special teams.
With Thomas presumably entering the starting lineup, perhaps his special teams contributions could be cut down, especially considering his twice injured opposite hamstrings chasing down punts last season.
That should keep the window of opportunity open for players such as Golden and Ventrone, who are less likely to see time on defense—Ventrone especially so, considering his lack of size and his position on the depth chart.
Golden, meanwhile, was the special teams captain last season, and continued to fill his role well, after getting over a rash of penalties early in the year. Still, his restricted free agent tender could be enticing to let go of if one of the team’s smorgasbord of Reserve/Futures safeties and draft picks could step up.
As Bryan also noted, seventh-rounder Gerod Holliman is a player the Steelers might want to find a way to keep, due to his impressive ball skills, but he will have to show himself on special teams if he wants to make the 53-man roster. 32 teams passed on drafting him several times, although there’s never a guarantee that a player will be safe on the practice squad.
It would be hard to imagine the Steelers parting with Allen right now considering the predicament they’re in with respect to their starting safeties, particularly with Thomas having no meaningful professional experience in that role. He is a necessary fallback option that cannot be duplicated by the less experienced safeties on the roster.
There are a host of young safeties also on the roster, as previously mentioned, a list that is headlined by Jordan Dangerfield, who showed flashes during camp and early in the preseason last year. He also spent time on the practice squad after Ventrone was called up.
It’s certainly possible that one or both of Golden and Ventrone don’t end up making the 53-man roster, but that won’t necessarily be to the benefit of another position. It seems likely to me that they will be keeping five safeties, weighted heavily toward those who excel on special teams during the summer.