Not everybody can be a star in the NFL. Not everybody can be a starter, anyway. I don’t know of a single player who doesn’t want to start. But you have to have those players who are willing to not only accept but to embrace lesser roles, with the trust that they still have the opportunity to earn the right to start, down the line.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Jordan Dangerfield has turned himself into such a player over the course of the past six years, three of which he has spent largely on the practice squad, and three largely on the 53-man roster, including each of the past two.
Now entering the offseason as a restricted free agent, it’s virtually a given that he will not be given a tender, but he should still be expected to be re-signed, likely to a veteran-minimum qualifying contract. He hasn’t had many chances to play defensively lately, even though he does have two starts in his background, but he has also embraced the role of being a ‘starter’ on special teams.
“Everybody wants to be a starter on offense or defense and that is still my dream, to be a starter”, he admitted to Teresa Varley. “But I like my role. I think they know what I can do here. You are a starter on special teams. There is sometimes more pressure because you aren’t getting 60 snaps, you are only getting maybe 20 a game. You have to be perfect on each of those plays”.
While Dangerfield only saw six snaps on defense in 2019, he recorded 308 on special teams, and that is a year after playing 315 special teams snaps. He spent the 2017 season on the practice squad, in part because he suffered an injury during the final preseason game (and subsequently traded for J.J. Wilcox), but in 2016, his first season on the 53, he played 229 snaps on special teams, in addition to 124 defensive snaps, largely over two starts.
The safety is what is referred to as a ‘four-phase’ player on special teams, meaning that he plays on both kick and punt units for both coverage and returns. As a result, he ended up playing over 70 percent of their special teams snaps last season, minus the field goal kicking and blocking units.
“I love the pressure. You only get one play”, he said about the stakes of special teams. “You don’t have time for any mess-ups. You have to go out and deliver on that play. We only get a handful of plays, a certain amount of plays every game, depending on how the game goes. You have pressure to be perfect on that play”.
Dangerfield registered 12 tackles last season, including 10 on kickoffs. The only returned over 26 yards that was allowed on a play on which he registered a tackle was one on which he forced a fumble. He had one tackle on defense, a two-yard loss against Le’Veon Bell.