The Pittsburgh Steelers thought they were getting themselves a starting safety when they signed Morgan Burnett to a three-year deal in 2018 worth nearly $5 million per season. They were wrong, though one can wonder how it might have gone differently if not for the rapid development of rookie Terrell Edmunds, who quickly took his place.
Burnett certainly wonders that, or rather, he doesn’t. He knows he could have been. He believes he will be now for the Cleveland Browns, whose general manager, John Dorsey, was part of the brain trust that drafted him in the third round in 2010 with the Green Bay Packers.
“I appreciate Mr. Dorsey for giving me this opportunity”, he told the Akron Beacon Journal earlier this month. Burnett had told Jeremy Fowler of ESPN earlier this offseason that he requested his release from the Steelers, citing his dissatisfaction with his reduced role as dimebacker and his desire to return to play strong safety.
The Browns had an opening for him after they traded starting safety Jabrill Peppers to the New York Giants as part of a deal that also included first- and third-round picks that yielded All-Pro wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. Burnett will now work with Damarious Randall, whom the Browns acquired via trade last year from the Packers, where he played with Burnett in the starting secondary. Randall was a cornerback at the time, however.
After signing with the Steelers, Burnett suffered a series of soft-tissue injuries that kept him sidelined for the majority of the offseason, through the spring and much of training camp, missing some time in the preseason as well. He was not fully healthy to start the regular season, so Edmunds officially started the opener and logged the majority of snaps.
The veteran did start the following week, with Edmunds rotating in, but Burnett suffered an injury that would keep him sidelined through the team’s bye week, four games later. By the time he returned to the field, the rookie first-round pick had already established himself in the role, so the free agent addition settled into the dimebacker role instead, where we later learned he wasn’t entirely happy.
“I never lost that confidence, even going through adversity last year”, Burnett said. “I still believed I could play at a high level”.
Which is why he gambled on asking the Steelers for his release, which they did several weeks before the draft after waiting to act. The Browns ended up giving him a contract very similar to the one that he signed for the Steelers, and with a starting job ready-made for him.
It will be interesting to see how he performs for Cleveland, while even he, on the wrong side of 30, knows that he is not the same player he once was. “I might not be as fast as I was at 21. But I have more experience”, he said. I have more knowledge. More understanding. Route recognition. Play recognition”.
These things, he argues, “allow me to play quicker”. That wasn’t necessarily evident in his performance in the dimebacker role in Pittsburgh, but in fairness, he probably was never fully healthy, and was in an uncomfortable role. This will be an opportunity—assuming he’s on the field—to get a glimpse at who the player is that the team thought they had signed, even if it was a stop-gap measure from the outset.