If you listened to the Pittsburgh Steelers pre-draft press conference on Monday you heard head coach Mike Tomlin suggest that newly-signed veteran safety Morgan Burnett might open up the offseason practices at the free safety spot instead of the strong safety position. Him saying that was a bit unexpected due to how Burnett was mostly used during his career with the Green Bay Packers and combined with the fact that there’s been a lot of talk this offseason about third-year safety Sean Davis possibly moving from the strong position to the free position in 2018 now that Mike Mitchell has been jettisoned.
On the heels of that Monday press conference, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert was interviewed Tuesday morning by Stan Savran on ESPN 970 and he was specifically asked if Davis, who was drafted in the second-round of the 2016 NFL Draft out of Maryland, might be better suited to play the free safety position instead of the strong safety position in the Steelers defense moving forward.
“I think he can be,” Colbert said. “The guys make so much progress year-to-year. You know, you think back and Troy [Polamalu] was a special teamer as a rookie and this guy’s a Hall of Fame player when he’s eligible. And you know, his first year he had trouble getting on the field, and then of course, as you mentioned earlier, he became a three-down player that was a significant contributor to Super Bowl teams.
“So, it takes them a while. Usually they progress faster. They usually don’t play as fast as Sean did, quite honestly. And they do get better, so I’m anxious to see how he plays. It’ll take a little bit of time to get him paired up with whoever, you know, who he ends up pairing up with most of the time, and where they sort that out. But as Coach [Tomlin] mentioned yesterday, until we get Morgan on the field and get to see him day-to-day, we won’t know how those two interact together.”
Earlier in that same interview, Colbert was asked if he remembers scouting Davis as being a better free safety as opposed to being a better strong safety during his college career even though he did have to play a lot of cornerback during his final two years at Maryland because of injuries that particular team had at the time.
“Well, you know, and you mentioned it, he was really a corner his last two years,” Colbert said of Davis. “The first two years he was a safety, but because of some things that happened with other players and their team, they needed him at corner, so you really didn’t get to see him do too much at safety unless you went back and studied really his first two years. I think the third year he did a little bit of both because they were making some transitions because I think the other kid got hurt, if I remember correctly, during Sean’s junior year.
“So the fact that he could play corner at the major college level was a plus. So, now taking him and putting him into the safety positions, and we even did it with him coming out of training camp, because we had some injuries. He was actually our slot corner and he was playing a lot in our sub packages, which kind of slowed him down from being the safety that he ended up being because he had to learn. He was really learning three spots at once. So it is nice that Sean can do those things, but really, the ability to play corner in the ACC, it was a positive in his ability to maybe be a good cover safety.”
Colbert went on to say that ideally, you’d like to have a player that’s versatile enough to play both the free and strong safety positions and he explained why.
“I mean, you know, we talk about free safety, strong safety, well, the offensive coaches are really good and you know, if you have a guy that’s more capable of playing in the post than he is in the box, well, they’re going to try to do some things schematically to get that kid to have to rotate down into the box or vice versa,” Colbert explained. “Let’s try to get your box guy in space so that we can create the mismatch that we’re looking for. You see that a lot in the college game right now, they get slot receivers matched up on safeties and they run posts and it’s a very highly productive play.
“But in college they’ve got to worry about those quarterbacks running so they have to play their safeties differently. Ideally you want somebody that can play free and strong, and you know, possibly line up in the slot and have the match ups. But again, there’s only so many of those guys to go around and we have to mix and match the rest of the players to their strengths and their abilities and that’s what the coaches will go through. Even with Morgan Burnett this spring, we’ve got to find out what our options are about where and how many different packages he can help us in.”
If you followed along closely, it sure sounds like if you apply all that Colbert said on Tuesday to this year’s safety class that Stanford’s Justin Reid will be very high on the team’s draft board come Thursday night because he played so many positions (seven) during his college career on top of him being both uber-athletic and uber-smart. While the Steelers certainly seem to have had interest in former Wake Forest safety Jessie Bates as well during the pre-draft process, he’s more of a free safety type and seemingly not as position flexible coming out of college as Reid is. This is mainly why I decided to mock Reid as the Steelers first-round draft pick in my final offering that I released on Monday.