It won’t be long now before the Pittsburgh Steelers begin rolling into Latrobe, PA to make Saint Vincent College their home away from home for several weeks as the summer winds down. That is when we know that training camp has begun, and with it the first breaths of the 2018 NFL season.
Everything that we have experienced up until now, from the re-signings, releases, and restructures to the draft and all the way through OTAs and minicamp, has been but a preview, the setup, for what is to come next.
And so we too continue to preview what comes next in a series in which we will highlight several of the battles for roster spots and roles that we expect to see during our time observing in training camp and throughout the preseason.
Position: Free Safety
Up for Grabs: Starting Job
In the Mix: Sean Davis, Morgan Burnett, Terrell Edmunds
I am including rookie first-round draft pick Terrell Edmunds in this discussion only because I believe he cannot be entirely ruled out, though I think it would be very unlikely if he were to enter the 2018 season with a starting role. We have been surprised in the past, including just last year with T.J. Watt, but this doesn’t appear to be a similar case.
The Steelers chose to move on from four-year starting free safety Mike Mitchell back in March, and when they did so they had no clear and obvious replacement for him, not just in the starting lineup, but specifically at the free safety spot.
While they knew that starting strong safety Sean Davis would be a candidate to move there, they still on the doorstep of training camp do not know for sure if he is a fit for that role in reality. Meanwhile, they signed eight-year veteran Morgan Burnett to take over a starting job, but he has spent more and more of his time in the box as he has gotten older.
I would argue that the smart money is on Davis ending up in the free safety role, but we must see how it actually plays out over the course of training camp and the preseason. The Steelers worked both players at both spots during the spring, often having them play sides rather than positions so that they could play either role depending upon what a particular rep called for.
Defensive coordinator Keith Butler has previously praised Davis, saying that the team knows he has the range to be able to play free safety. He also talked about the importance of tackling at the free safety position as the last line of defense, but that is one of the player’s biggest liabilities, even though he led the team in tackles in 2018.
A likely outcome is that the Steelers will be more flexible with these roles in 2018 than they have been in the past. They may even opt to play the sides approach frequently over the course of the regular season if they don’t reach a clear answer about who ought to be in that role.