It is perhaps yet to be determined whether or not it is a permanent on, but the Pittsburgh Steelers’ plan at least heading into tomorrow’s regular season opening game against the Cleveland Browns is to have first-round rookie Terrell Edmunds starting at the strong safety position, ahead of free agent veteran Morgan Burnett.
Burnett has been limited with injuries all offseason, and he missed the final two preseason games with a bothersome hamstring. While he was not listed on the injury report this week, it is unclear how the team views him from a health standpoint, but what they definitely know is that Edmunds has been the one running with the first-team defense, making three starts in the preseason due to injuries ahead of him.
He looks to become the third member of the secondary in the past three years to play his first game in the starting lineup, after first-year slot cornerback Mike Hilton did so last season. Free safety Sean Davis opened as the starting slot defender as a rookie in 2016 before moving to safety mid-season.
But he could also become just the second wall-to-wall rookie starter on the defensive side of the ball since Kendrell Bell. Outside linebacker T.J. Watt did it just last season, but it was a long wait between the two. If Edmunds plays well, he could stick, but the Steelers have pulled struggling rookie starters more than once.
Hilton at least believes he is ready for a starting role, whether or not it is his to retain. He told Ray Fittipaldo that “it’s not too big for him” and that, while it’s only based off of his preseason work, “he’s out there communicating well, making plays and flying around. That’s what you want to see from your rookie. It’s not too big”.
The stage certainly was not too big for Watt a year ago, who kickstarted his career with two sacks and an interception. Edmunds recorded an interception on defense and forced a fumble on special teams during four games of preseason work. He also snared a high pass through the end zone on a play that was negated by penalty.
While Hilton called the rookie safety “a bigger guy”, he allowed that “his ball skills are good”, talking up his versatility. “He’ll come in the box and tackle. He adds a lot of versatility to our defense. He’s a guy we look forward to playing a lot and helping this defense”.
Edmunds does not have to start in order to play. the Steelers intend to make use of three-safety groupings in both their dime (or quarter) personnel, as well as a seven-defensive-back package called the dollar defense. He could also be used situationally as a nickel defender, should Burnett assume the starting role in a week or two.