Public comments by Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II and General Manager Kevin Colbert strongly indicate that one of the team’s biggest priorities this offseason will remain continuing to fix the secondary. Their numbers did improve a year ago, despite leaking big plays in the second half of the season. The additions of Mike Hilton and Joe Haden were steps forward.
As I wrote about yesterday, one ‘addition by subtraction’ that the Steelers reportedly are likely to make is releasing veteran starting safety Mike Mitchell, who is scheduled to make a base salary of $5 million on the final year of a five-year, $25 million contract.
Should that happen, the author of that report, Gerry Dulac, says the team is also considering the move of shifting Sean Davis, their starting strong safety heading into his third season in the NFL, to the free safety position, “because they feel his range is better suited to that position”.
Davis was a second-round pick out of Maryland in the 2016 NFL Draft who had experience playing both safety and cornerback in college, though he was primarily a safety and came to play cornerback by necessity.
He opened his rookie season as the team’s starting slot defender again spurred by necessity, as the player who was lining up in the starting lineup there, Senquez Golson, was injured. With fellow rookie Artie Burns not yet ready to contribute, William Gay was lined up outside, or the otherwise would have been in the slot.
Davis did not last long in the slot, however, and suffered an injury in the third game of the season that lasted throughout the year, requiring offseason surgery. By the time he did return to the lineup, Burns was outside and Gay was in the slot, and the rookie was moved full-time to concentrating on safety, ultimately moving into the starting lineup.
Dulac actually spent a fair amount of time in the article offering up a defense of Davis that certainly read to me as something of a team opinion piece. He concluded the article by writing that “the Steelers are perfectly content with Sean Davis”, responding to heavy criticism that he has received, much of which stems from his performance against perennial first-team All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is on track to be in the Hall of Fame.
I think it’s safe to presume that no matter what the Steelers do, releasing Davis, entering his third season in the NFL, is not going to be among the moves that they make, barring something out of the ordinary, such as an arrest or something unrelated to football.
The dichotomy of Mitchell playing deep safety and Davis often playing in the box, even drawing slot coverage assignments, was pronounced this offseason. If the team wants to have a more rangy player on the back end who can possibly produce turnovers—he had three interceptions in 2017—moving him to Mitchell’s spot may well make sense, assuming they also have another safety to add to the mix.