Want = a position the team could improve with a good draft pick.
Important Want = should improve rather than could.
Need = a missing starter.
This series looks at each position to evaluate the level of want and some of the prospects who might be available in those early rounds.
- Offensive Wants, Needs and Prospects: Offensive Tackle (as of January 12), Center (January 15), Guard (January 19), Running Back (January 16), Tight End (January 21), Quarterback (January 26), WR Types (January 30), and WR Prospects (February 1).
- Defensive Wants, Needs and Prospects: Defensive Tackle (as of February 9), Corner (February 11), Edge Rusher (February 15), and Inside Linebacker (February 22).
SAFETY AND NICKEL DEFENSIVE BACK
The 2020 Steelers had this position nailed, with top tier starters and fabulous depth. Let’s have a look:
- Minkah Fitzpatrick is an ideal Free Safety with the range, instincts, and ability to free up everyone else on the defense by playing center field. A rare, all-pro talent obtained in a trade from Miami, he will be in Year 4 of his rookie deal in 2021. The Steelers have Miami’s right to exercise a 5th year option that would keep him here for the 2022 season as well, at which point he would probably earn megabucks on the open market.
- Terrell Edmunds has developed into a Top 10 Strong Safety who has great chemistry with both Fitzpatrick behind/beside him, and Devin Bush just up in front. No, he isn’t Troy Polamalu, but comparing someone to the GOAT is neither fair nor productive. Edmunds came from the same draft class as Fitzpatrick, and is subject to the same potential 5th year option. Note the danger of both young men having contracts that move in lockstep.
- Sean Davis left for Washington in 2020 after his rookie deal expired, got paid $5 Million, and then returned to Pittsburgh on a $900K one-year deal after he flunked out in D.C. He is now an unrestricted free agent. Will the team keep him? It depends on price. He did not play much in 2020, but that was mostly because Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton have played well enough to seize those snaps. He did, however, provide invaluable depth as the first backup for Fitzpatrick, the first backup for Edmunds, and the Nickel DB3 behind Sutton and Hilton, who were tied as the #1. All that in one body.
- Jordan Dangerfield is a special teams ace and a valued team leader. There are many, many stories you can find from current and former players he more or less taught how to play their part in the Steelers defense. A classic coach on the field. But at this point he is no longer a direct contributor to the Steelers defense. He is also a 2021 free agent.
- Antoine Brooks was the Steelers Round 6 pick in the 2020 draft. He only saw the field in week 10 and has been invisible otherwise, so here is the description from last year’s Big Board: “[5’10⅝”, 220 lbs.] The Safety equivalent of a bowling ball, he’s built like a half-pint ILB and sort of plays that way. Great blitzer, but less nimble and speedy than desired for coverage duty… The NFL.com scouting profile nails the bottom line: ‘He’s either a versatile defender or one lacking a clean positional fit depending on a team’s assessment and scheme.’”
Two starters, a good backup and veteran special teams ace who are entering free agency, and a 2020 rookie we know little about. But it really went deeper than that because the team uses Nickel formations (5 defensive backs) more often than anything else, with Dime (6 of them) as a common sub package. Those Nickel and Dive DB’s may nominally be Corners but their actual tasks used to be part of a Safety’s job back in the day. Thus a lot of the “Safety Snaps” for the 2020 Pittsburgh defense actually went to one of the following:
- Mike Hilton, a miniature CB who plays in the slot with the ferocity, blitzing ability, and tackling skills of an ultra-miniature Safety. He is a perfect example of how the Safety jobs have never been more important to a defense than they are today, but often get assigned to someone who’s nominally at another position. Those crossover talents are what make him so valuable, and also such a fan favorite. And alas, are likely to make him a major target for other teams during the 2021 free agency period.
- Cam Sutton, another shifty CB who handles Safety duties. He’s a little less physical and bit better in coverage than Hilton, and thus has been used when the Nickel/Dime slot player wants to be more like a FS than a SS. Sutton is also a free agent in 2021, and it is generally thought that only one of the two – Hilton or Sutton – will return to Pittsburgh for the future.
- Marcus Allen is a Round 5 pick from 2018 who has been formally moved from being an too-big Safety to being a too-small Mack ILB. A special teams ace who is sort of like the Size L mirror image of Jordan Dangerfield: deep depth you do not want to see in the regular defense outside of emergencies. He is an ERFA in this offseason.
This defense absolutely requires three competent midfield defensive backs plus a cover-capable Mack ILB. In 2020 they had five in the combination of Fitzpatrick, Edmunds, Hilton, Sutton, and Devin Bush, with quality depth in the form of Sean Davis, and deep depth in Dangerfield and Allen. That is one of the main reasons the defense stayed so well glued even after losing so many bona fide stars to injury and Covid.
Three of those front line players (Hilton, Sutton, and Davis) will be free agents this year, along with the deep depth (Dangerfield as a UFA and Allen as an ERFA). The next two, Fitzpatrick and Edmunds, will be free agents in 2022 unless the team exercises their 5th year options. All of which means the Steelers would seriously consider an athlete to feed the pipeline, and hopefully be a decent backup in case one of the starting Safeties gets hurt.
The best answer by far would be to keep at least two out of the Sutton-Hilton-Davis trio. It would be ideal to keep all three, but that is unlikely given the cap situation.
THIS YEAR’S SAFETIES
This year’s class has a strange distribution of talent that actually matches what the Steelers will want very well. There are no guaranteed Round 1 stars in the 2021 Safety class, but there is a dense cluster of young talent in the 2-4 range, and some decent depth for later on Day 3. I plan to unilaterally rule that pure Safeties and Nickel DB’s will be capped at a Round 3 grade on the Steelers Big Board due to the limited number of available snaps, but will note the “all teams” grade for those earlier players in the text below. As you’ll see, the bulk of them really are natural 3-5 talents. That is great, since the team is most likely to target a Safety or Nickel DB in that range.
- FS Trevon Moehrig, TCU (Junior). 6’1”, 208 lbs. Yes, I’ll say it: Minkah Lite. Moehrig is widely considered the best pure Safety in the class, with the size to play in the box and an even more natural fit as a play making, ball hawking, cover capable presence in the secondary. He’d be a clear Round 1 talent but for his only-acceptable tackling skills. Wesley Cantliffe’s gif-supported February scouting report is typical with its fringe-1st final grade. Same with this point-by-point scouting profile from early February. FRINGE 1ST ELSEWHERE, ROUND 3 FOR PITTSBURGH
- FS/DB Richie Grant, UCF (RS Senior). 5’11⅝”, 200 lbs. Will turn 24 as a rookie. An effective and rangy playmaker from the deep Safety role, with extensive special teams credentials and a love for that part of the game, Grant would rank a solid round higher on this Board if Pittsburgh did not have such a big preference for younger draft picks. Stood out brilliantly at the Senior Bowl, where he also played some Corner. This point-by-point scouting profile from early February ends in a solid Round 2 grade. Tom Mead’s gif-supported February scouting report ends in a Round 2-3 grade. ROUND 2 ELSEWHERE, ROUND 3 IN PITTSBURGH
- S Jevon Holland, Oregon (Junior). 6’1”, 196 lbs. A full sized Safety with the quickness and speed to return punts? Yep. Also known as a team leader and a solid tackler. It’s just… where are the splash plays a guy with that profile ought to be producing? He had something to prove in 2020, and that something could have easily pushed him into Round 1 contention. He opted out instead. This gif-heavy February scouting report ends with a Round 2 grade, describing him as a true Nickel DB whose talents spread from Nickel-CB out to single-high Safety. The com scouting profile seems to agree. The #2 Safety overall according to Bucky Brooks February list. ROUND 2-3 ELSEWHERE, ROUND 3 IN PITTSBURGH
- S Hamsah Nasirildeen, Fla. St. (Senior). 6’3⅛”, 213 lbs. with lineman-length 34” arms and big 10” hands. A prospect whose athletic profile and potential really reminds you of Terrell Edmunds, right down to the “team leader” and “high character” aspects noted in the com scouting profile. Read this February scouting profile and you’ll see exactly what I mean. He looks like an oversized and physical box Safety – and he plays that role well – but he also has the speed and coverage ability to play deep. The only missing element is ball skills. Like Edmunds, Nasirlideen is much better at preventing or tackling the completion than he is at producing INT’s. Tore an ACL in November of 2019, and lost most of 2020 when he tweaked it again in the second week. This Giants-oriented February scouting profile ends with an excited “early starter” grade as a hybrid LB/Safety athlete. ROUND 2-3 ELSEWHERE, ROUND 3 IN PITTSBURGH
- FS Andre Cisco, Syracuse (Junior). 5’11¾”, 203 lbs. Excels as a playmaking centerpiece in the middle of the secondary, but needs to improve his tackling and overall oomph to be the same at the next level. Interviews will matter since he has a reputation for being either a step slow in his analysis and reaction, or hair trigger jumpy and easy for a good QB to manipulate. This brief but solid January scouting profile ended with a Top 50 grade. This goes to a 4-minute video scouting profile (not yet watched). This nice gif-supported February scouting report ends with a fringe-2nd grade after lauding the ball skills and instincts, but head-shaking at the erratic tackling. The com scouting profile considers him a boom or bust box Safety who should be a good backup with starter potential. ROUND 2-3 ELSEWHERE, ROUND 3 IN PITTSBURGH
- FS/CB Shaun Wade, Ohio St. (RS Junior). 6’1”, 194 lbs. Turns 23 as a rookie. No school has produced more and better DB’s than Ohio State over the past decade, with even the over-drafted ones (Eli Apple, Bradley Robey, etc.) eventually turning out to be basically solid. Wade is the next one up, a 6’1” specimen who’s played best in the slot where quickness is supremely important, his length almost a disadvantage, and his combination of tackling and blitzing prowess show best. Daniel Jeremiah has compared him to Minkah Fitzpatrick, but that was after 2019. Wade struggled mightily as a boundary Corner in 2020; so much so that he’s now viewed as more of a multitool DB than a true Corner. That limits his value significantly compared to the Top-15 buzz after 2019. But that “multi-tool DB floor” is still a valuable player (“bigger and better version of Mike Hilton” is nothing to scoff at!), the ceiling is very high, and there is that tantalizing chance he could convert to the true Free Safety spot his build and athletic skills seem to suggest. Owen Straley’s gif-supported February scouting profile makes exactly that comparison – to a larger and more physical Mike Hilton – and then ends with a Round 4-5 grade. The pure athleticism and Safety upside justify a slightly higher grade on this board, with due warning. Be sure to read this excellent NFL.com article for background about the young man himself, and what makes him tick. We rarely get that kind of human access, and it matters. ROUND 3 GRADE
- S Richard LeCounte III, Georgia (Senior). 5’11”, 190 lbs. A good, solid, all around Safety who projects as a high floor, moderate ceiling kind of pick. Does everything well but is a little small, and has only NFL-good athleticism rather than the sort of eye-popping native talent that Pittsburgh tends to prioritize. Here is a solid looking January scouting profile from PFN. Here is a good article on how he overcame a nasty motorcycle accident in the middle of the 2020 season. Here is a fare-thee-well scouting profile from a Georgia Bulldogs fan site. This article includes information on his role as a strong, heart-and-soul team leader. ROUND 3 GRADE
- S/CB Ar’Darius Washington, TCU (RS Sophomore). 5’8”, 179 lbs. 21 years old. Mike Hilton is a miniature CB with the ferocity and tackling skills to double as an ultra-mini Safety. This prospect is an ultra-mini Safety who’s got pretty solid slot-Corner skills. It’s just… that is a hard kind of hybrid role to carry off well when you’re up against NFL athletes. A very fun player to root for, but his stock is depressed because the physical odds are stacked against him to some extent. This point-by-point scouting profile thinks he can overcome those limitations, and thus ends with a strong Round 2 endorsement. This brief February scouting profile would agree on the Round 2-3 grade. This thorough, gif-heavy February scouting report ends with another Round 2-3 grade on a fairly common comparison to Tyrann Mathieu. This Mathieu-centric article calls Ar’Darius Washington and Elijah Molden his potential “disciples,” whatever that means. ROUND 3 GRADE
- S/CB Joshua Bledsoe, Missouri (Senior). 5’11”, 201 lbs. A good Nickel SAF/CB hybrid with the chops to play in the slot and cover all but the shiftiest WR’s. There is a lot of value there, particularly if the team loses both Sean Davis and Mike Hilton. There is no question at all about his potential to contribute on special teams. This goes to Tom Mead’s early February, gif-supported scouting report. This goes to a detailed, gif-supported interview with a Colts site where the interviewer got to ask questions about specific plays. Definitely worth a read. This goes to the first article in a series that will follow Bledsoe’s draft journey. ROUND 3-4 GRADE
- S Paris Ford, Pitt. (RS Junior). 6’0”, 190 lbs. His football IQ may be a year or two away from NFL standards, but he has all the talent and traits needed to be a multipurpose Safety who can thrive anywhere from in the box to single-high. Interviews will matter because those neck-up questions are the biggest ones in his profile. Opted out in the latter part of the 2020 season. This late January scouting profile from a Chiefs POV loves his devil may care aggressiveness, and sees that same asset as his main weakness. ROUND 3-4 GRADE
- SS Talanoa Hufanga, USC (Junior). 6’1”, 215 lbs. A Strong Safety with that mysterious ability to flash off the screen out of nowhere and blow something up. He would benefit from wrapping up more and blowing up fewer, and could definitely improve some in the pass defense arena, but he ranks as high as you’re ever going to see on the “potential playmaker in the middle rounds” scale. Would have probably benefited from another year in college to hone his technical skills. This video-supported February scouting report from a Giants POV describes him as a smart, starter quality box Safety who may struggle when asked to stretch out of that mold. ROUND 3-4 GRADE
- DB James Wiggins, Cincinnati. (RS Senior). 5’11½”, 190 lbs. An A+ athlete who plays that hybrid role between an undersized box Safety and a full sized Nickel Corner, Wiggins projects as a sub package football specialist who might have a hard time finding snaps in the base defense when only four DB’s are on the field. Should be a special teams demon. Think of the Mike Hilton role with a bigger and maybe even more athletic player, but without the proven NFL instincts. He missed 2019 with a torn ACL but looked good in both 2018 and the 2020 Covid season. Here is Devin Jackson’s gif-supported February scouting report, which ends in a late-3rd grade. This goes to a January scouting profile from PFN, which questions his ability to stay healthy. ROUND 3-4 GRADE
- S Tyree Gillespie, Missouri. (Senior). 5’11⅞”, 207 lbs. An all around football player at the Safety position, held back by possessing only limited athleticism for all the good work he does. Plays a tough and physical game in the box, with good tackling skills but only-good hitting power. Is adequate playing deep because he plays smart, but can be beaten by pure speed. He also needs to be more consistent, especially at the next level where he’ll be dealing with better athletes. Should be a special teams demon. On paper he sounds like a young Dangerfield, and he could be even better if his football IQ develops. Here is a January scouting profile from PFN. This goes to a gif-supported January scouting report. Here is a Colts-oriented, gif-supported interview from February. ROUND 4 GRADE
- FS Caden Sterns, Texas (Junior). 6’0”, 210 lbs. A solid Free Safety prospect that excels in the secondary but gets weaker when asked to play in the box. Not ineffective, just not as good. A fine natural athlete who is considered an underperformer compared to the buzz he came into college with. Testing and interviews could both cause his prospects to either sink or sail. He came in as Bucky Brooks’ #3 Safety prospect in February. Lance Zierlein’s com scouting profile likes the physical assets but sees a variety of issues with instincts, tackling angles, and other ‘upstairs’ concerns. This Cowboys-oriented January scouting profile/interview with the Texas product ends in a Round 4 grade, as a traits-heavy developmental product who needs to work on his instincts and angles. ROUND 4 GRADE
- S Tariq Thompson, San Diego St. (Senior). 6’0”, 200 lbs. An intriguing player because he’s an okay Cover 2 Safety, but much better than that in the Nickel DB role that’s been occupied by Mike Hilton. Definitely one to keep an eye on as more information becomes available. ROUND 4-5 GRADE
- S Divine Deablo, Va. Tech. (RS Senior). 6’3⅜”, 226 lbs. with 32 ¾” arms. A long, tall Safety with three years of starting experience and intriguing assets, but held back by being a very linear athlete. He would grade higher if he had the knack of being as intimidating as his size suggests he should be, but instead he’s just solid as a tackler. This goes to a combination scouting report and recorded interview from January. This Colts-oriented interview uses the idea that he is a “TE eraser” and someone who wants to be a Kam Chancellor type. ROUND 5 GRADE
- S Aashari Crosswell, Arizona St. (Junior). 6’0”, 196 lbs. A safety who excels at ball skills, playing in coverage and ball hawking on passing downs. Excellent ball skills, with coverage good enough to be a zone Corner but a bit too stiff to succeed in man. Gets people down but not a violent, impact tackler. Here is a nice preseason article from October to get some background. ROUND 5 GRADE
- CB/S Ifeatu Melifonwu, Syracuse (RS Junior). 6’2⅝”, 212 lbs. with long 32⅛” arms. Too bad there won’t be a Combine, because his older brother Obi (the San Francisco Safety) probably rose two full rounds when his athletic genius got put on full display. Ifi is a tremendous athlete too, if a bit more on the coverage side of that hybrid DB description. His draft spot will ultimately depend on whether teams conclude he is a boundary CB in the making, or “just” a long, rangy Safety with CB potential for both the slot and the outside. Tackles like a big Safety ought to, which is downright special when he’s viewed as a Corner. Obvious Round 1 physical assets, but his technique is too far from a professional level to justify a Steelers pick in that range. Should be an instant contributor on special teams. Here is a typically solid PFN scouting profile from January. This January scouting profile ends with a Round 2 grade based on surprisingly good COD skills held back only by questions about his long speed. This 4-part January scouting profile points out that Melifonwu is already an accomplished Safety, and the questions go to his move toward being an outside Corner. This Cowboys-oriented scouting profile (and interview) ends with a Round 1 grade. Here is a February scouting profile from a Chiefs POV that ends with a high-potential Round 2 grade. This goes to a gif-supported scouting report from January. He definitely made some money at the Senior Bowl. This February scouting profile from a Cowboys POV considers Melifonwu the CB4 of the class behind Surtain, Farley and Horn, and ends with yet another Round 1 grade. ROUND 2 GRADE DUE TO THE CB UPSIDE
- CB/DB Elijah Molden, Washington (Senior). 5’10”, 190 lbs. Your classic “quicker than fast” guy, several reports have emphasized that he is a pure football player at heart who does the little things well. Excellent instincts; excellent ball skills; excellent tackling pound-for-pound; etc. What he lacks is the long speed and extra inches to play on the boundary. A good, interior piece of the secondary but limited to that role. Owen Straley’s gif-supported February scouting report lauds Molden’s “impressive combination of patience and physicality” before ending with a fringe-2nd grade as a starting Nickel DB to replace Mike Hilton. This Mathieu-centric article calls Ar’Darius Washington and Elijah Molden his potential “disciples,” whatever that means. ROUND 3 GRADE
- NICKEL DB Tre Norwood, Oklahoma. (Senior). 5’11⅞”, 192 lbs. with extremely short 29⅛” arms. A very hard player to grade. First he was known as a slick moving but badly undersized H.S. player who came to campus at 165 lbs. He got onto the field for 5 games anyway, and has now grown to a still-stringy 192. Then he shot onto the scene as a dual CB/Safety in 2018, but missed his would-be showcase year in 2019 due to a preseason, noncontact ACL tear. So 2020 was going to be big, and then… Covid. He played well anyway, but there were not many games. [Sigh]. Moves extremely well and has a nose for the football, but is severely short in the measurable length. Played both inside and outside in college, but projects best to the NFL in the slot. Here is a late January PFN scouting profile. ROUND 5 GRADE
- S Reed Blankenship, Middle Tenn. (Senior). 6’1”, 196 lbs. A solid Safety with good but not great athleticism suitable to playing the backup role so long and capably occupied by Jordan Dangerfield. Probably will not be a starter, but has a high special teams and useful backup floor. Would rank higher if the production had come against a higher level of competition. Went into the 2020 season with enormous buzz as a potential draft sleeper, as shown by this exciting, gif-supported September scouting report from PFN and this gif-supported October scouting report. He played well in 2020, but not up to that standard. ROUND 6 GRADE
SUPERIOR COVER-CAPABLE ILB’S
- ILB/SS Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame (RS Junior). 6’2”, 216 lbs. A mid-1st prospect on other boards, JOK exemplifies the modern hybrid SS/ILB who can do both jobs at an acceptable level. He’s discounted here because Pittsburgh has less need for that player than other teams. It Ain’t Gonna Happen anyway. He’s too good. TOP 20 ELSEWHERE, ROUND 2 FOR PITTSBURGH
- ILB/SS Dylan Moses, Alabama (Senior). 6’3”, 240 lbs. Here’s the lead on basically every scouting report you’ll see: “Dylan Moses is a freak athlete.” He has every talent you look for: size, speed, fluidity, etc. The physical potential is basically unlimited. And it’s been that way since he made the cover of ESPN’s magazine in 8th grade after receiving scholarship offers from both LSU and Alabama. The issues come down to the flip side of that coin. What would that do to you? Especially with a father who raised you for the gridiron like some colossal stage mom? Those question marks – and they are only that, questions – pervade the discussion. Does he love the game enough for itself? Will he go sideways when he becomes his own man? Will he retire young, or fight through injuries hard enough? Does he have enough fear and ambition to drive him on? Everyone seems to have an internal plotline even though no outsider can really know, and thus interviews are going to drive his stock more than film. Yes, he had a bad ACL tear that cost him 2019. Yes, he went into 2020 with Top 10 expectations, and failed to meet them. Yes, that may have been the injury… or was it [fill in your plot point]? James Wilford’s gif-supported February scouting profile, notes some slower processing time and what might be occasional failures to pursue 110% of the time. Which in due course leads to questions about the “why.” Daniel Jeremiah has compared him to Myles Jack, as the sort of limitless athlete who needs to grow into his powers, but will need some guidance in doing so. This January scouting profile from PFN has good background. ROUND 2-3
- ILB/SS Chazz Surratt, N. Car. (RS Senior). 6’1½”, 227 lbs. He’s earned a real discount for this Board because he measures like a Mack ILB who is too small to play Buck – a step I hate to take because this is the sort of prospect to get your draftnik juices going. He’d have a Round 2 grade in a heartbeat if he was 2” and 20 lbs. bigger. Surratt was a good college Quarterback who couldn’t quite make it in that position, and therefore chose to move across the line to become a highly athletic QB for the defense. And did! It’s hard to oversell the value at ILB for that kind of drive, discipline, and football IQ. The biggest issues are age (24 on draft day) and the fact that the Steelers have a glut of Mack ILB talent in Bush, Spillane, Gilbert, and even Marcus Allen. Here is a wonderful NFL.com article from November to give you some insight into the young man as well as the player. Tom Mead’s gif-supported February scouting report ends with a Round 3 grade based on obvious starter potential that requires some significant learning, and may be limited to the Mack position. ROUND 2 GRADE ELSEWHERE, ROUND 3 GRADE IN PITTSBURGH
- ILB/SS Jamin Davis, Kentucky. (RS Junior). 6’3”, 224 lbs. (his college numbers were 6’4” and 234). The modern hybrid LB who excels in coverage and plays well in run support because he ‘gets it’ despite his size limitations. Something of a one year wonder, and played in rotation even in 2020, but that was enough to show a pretty high floor at a position in high demand. Kentucky fans certainly mourned his loss. Discounted a bit on this board because the Steelers have more obvious use for a Buck ILB than a Mack, but his obvious special teams potential mitigates the positional analysis. Here is a Giants-oriented scouting profile from mid-February that worries about how much more he needs to learn. Tom Mead’s gif-supported February scouting report ends with an unusually high Round 2 grade based in part on assuming the larger size. ROUND 3 GRADE
The level of Want for another Safety really comes down to things that we cannot answer yet. The most important question is, “Who will be leaving in free agency?” After that we want to ask, “how has Antoine Brooks developed,” and “is Uly Gilbert as capable in coverage as our hopes make out?” We will be in a position to judge things better once we have those answers. Until then it is shadow boxing against the ifs and maybes, with some extra interest directed toward those few Safeties who are either good enough to be a true ILB/SS hybrid, or a true Nickel DB.