With the news of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ signing of Mark Barron—which they have not yet made official as of the time of this writing—it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to imagine that safety Morgan Burnett will be spending much more time on the team’s roster.
Burnett, now 30, previously requested his release early in the offseason, and it has yet to be granted, though given the fact that the lost the opportunity to start and commands a $5 million base salary, it would make a lot of sense if the team ultimately obliges.
While Barron is not—at least no longer is—a true safety, one would gather that he is in large part taking over Burnett’s hypothetical role in the defense, and clearing the books of his contract and salary cap would certainly go a long way toward easing the new contract into the pay structure.
The Steelers typically prefer to release players as soon as possible, in part because if gives those players a better opportunity to land with the right fit or for a better contract. It also gets their contracts off the book quicker, of course, so it’s not entirely altruistic.
There is, however, recent precedent for the team choosing to hold onto players longer when they remain unsure of the depth chart. Two examples immediately come to mind from the past two seasons in which players were released following the draft.
Last season, it was another safety that was acquired the previous year, J.J. Wilcox. The Steelers released him after drafting Terrell Edmunds and Marcus Allen at the position. Earlier in the offseason, they also released Robert Golden and Mike Mitchell, but replaced them with Burnet and Nat Berhe.
In 2016, the Steelers were dealt a blow when backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski suffered a season-ending injury in training camp. They ended up claiming Zach Mettenberger off waivers soon after that, who functioned as the number three quarterback that year.
He remained on the roster through the 2017 NFL Draft, after which he was released with the selection of Joshua Dobbs in the fourth round. It was Dobbs as the number three quarterback that season, moving up to the backup role this past year and ousting Landry Jones in the process, who made it through to the final roster cut.
Of course it’s still entirely possible that the Steelers choose to carry Burnett as a backup safety/dime backer, but it will be at a hefty price tag if they choose to do so. Behind Edmunds and Sean Davis as the starters are currently Allen and Jordan Dangerfield, along with Barron as a dime, and frankly, they have gone into the season with less (e.g. Golden and Shamarko Thomas early in their careers).