The Pittsburgh Steelers released a starting safety earlier this year. Then they signed a starting safety in the offseason. But will that new safety play in the same spot as the one held by the safety that was released?
The general assumption has been that he will not, ultimately, but the Steelers did talk about Morgan Burnett starting the offseason off playing at free safety, where Mike Mitchell patrolled for the defense over the course of the past four years.
According to Tim Benz, “every indication has been that Keith Butler would prefer Burnett” play in roles other than free safety, including strong safety and in the dimebacker role that he was used in for the Green Bay Packers last season, so much so that he even ended up with the green dot.
I doubt this really comes as a surprise to anybody, but the fact of the matter is that the Steelers haven’t really been forthcoming about their plans outside of a few miscellaneous comments here and there. Butler talked about having his own opinions of what he thinks each player could do, for example, but mentioned that they won’t know more until the pads come on.
So it is true that while every indication may be that Burnett will not be the starting free safety, we actually don’t know anything with certainty right now, and perhaps the Steelers don’t either. They will utilize the opportunity provided them with full-contact practices and real simulated football work in the preseason to help them determine which alignment gives them the best combination.
The other option is of course Sean Davis, a third-year player who has spent the past season and a half as the starting strong safety. Butler commented that the team knows he has range, though, which is an indication that they are comfortable with the idea of moving him to free safety on a full-time basis.
Whatever happens, we know that the long-term plan is eventually for one of them—ideally Burnett—to be removed from the starting lineup, because rookie first-round pick Terrell Edmunds is waiting in the wings, and he should be capable of playing either free or strong safety given his size and athleticism.
How long he will have to wait for his opportunity to be a full-time player is hard to say. As previously mentioned, Davis ended up in the starting lineup in the second half of his rookie season, but he was not replacing an incumbent or a prized newcomer. Instead, it was Robert Golden, who was only starting because Will Allen was gone—who in turn was only starting because Shamarko Thomas flamed out.