Terrell Edmunds is the biggest question mark of the 2022 off season. Everything else will pivot around whether he will return or need to be replaced. Here is the current roster:
- FS1 – Minkah Fitzpatrick. Under contract for 2022 but expected to get an extremely large extension before entering the final year of his rookie deal.
- FS2 – Tre Norwood. 2021 Rookie. One of the most pleasant surprises of the year, Norwood showed the ability to be a cover-safety across the field. With any luck he can serve as a backup FS and Nickel player, but he will always be undersized for playing in the box.
- SS – Terrell Edmunds. [Free Agent] The elephant in the room. Discussed at length below.
- ILB/BOX – Miles Killebrew. [Free Agent] A special teams demon who can serve as emergency depth inside the box (but only inside the box).
- ILB/BOX – Marcus Allen. [Restricted Free Agent] A special teams demon who can serve as emergency depth inside the box (but only inside the box).
- FS/SS – Karl Joseph. [Free Agent] A 2016 Round 1 pick by the Raiders. His career has bottomed out. A 2021 Steelers reclamation project that didn’t seem to work.
- SAF – Donovan Stiner. A 2021 rookie. No further data.
Kind of an obvious pattern, isn’t it? One star-powered FS under contract (Fitzpatrick); one promising cover-Safety under contract (Norwood); one starting SS who’s a free agent (Edmunds); and a bunch of special teamers who double as emergency Safeties, and are also free agents.
So again, it all comes down to this: What’s going to happen with Terrell Edmunds?
The Edmunds Situation In A Nutshell
Pittsburgh surprised most of the draft world by picking the 6’1”, 217 lb. Edmunds at 1:28 in the 2018 draft when he’d been expected to last for another 10-20 picks. The scouting reports more or less agreed on how to describe him: incredibly athletic, great football character, but badly in need of a few years to master the brain-intensive Strong Safety position. And that’s pretty much what has happened.
Edmunds didn’t play badly enough to hate. He just progressed at a stubbornly gradual pace that drove many fans to distraction. Year after year he improved while underplaying compared to what fans had hoped. He looked lost as a 2018 rookie, not just raw. In 2019, he looked like the rookie that people hoped for. In 2020, he was a 3rd-year player who looked like he’d only just made the big sophomore leap. Etc. He’s gotten better every year, but always that one, frustrating year later than the fans kept demanding.
2021 was his 4th year, and it saw him growing into his role as a genuine asset and “glue guy” in the middle of the defense. Edmunds has become a reliable tackler who makes the right reads, gets to where he’s supposed to be, and either eliminates or ameliorates a lot of problems before they get bad. A solid pro who will become an actively good pro if keeps on improving. Minkah Fitzpatrick has sung his praises several times, which also matters.
We’d be completely satisfied with that report card for any Round 2 pick. Even excited. But Edmunds wasn’t a Round 2 pick. He required a precious 1st Round pick, even if it was right at the very end. That is enough to make Steeler Nation view him with a disappointed heart even though the thinking parts can no longer really complain.
Pittsburgh had the option to pick up Edmunds’ 5th year option for 2022, which would have required the team to pay him $6.753 Million for this upcoming season. The Steelers declined to do so, but at the same time told him, “That doesn’t mean staying is out of the question.” And ever since then the speculation has run rampant between two camps. First you have the doubters, who believe the team is eager to walk away to a new beginning. And then you have the believers, who think the team meant what it said, and merely decided on a “prove it” year versus committing to those numbers.
I fall in the second camp. Partly because I’ve heard the young man speak on numerous occasions, and I think he’s even better as a Steeler than he is as a football player. Partly because of the repeated lobbying by Fitzpatrick. And mostly because I choose to be ruled by my thinking parts. Plus the fact that losing Edmunds would leave this team in a genuine pickle.
What Happens If Edmunds Stays Versus If He Leaves?
In the first case Safety is a relatively minor want. The team could use some quality depth but will have no actual hole to fill. The starters would be set.
If Edmunds departs, Strong Safety will vault into being Pittsburgh’s primary draft need on defense, right up there in a tie overall with O-Line and QB.
It is the single most important and pivotal question of the off season, and at this point we haven’t got the foggiest idea of how it’s going to turn out. Color me frustrated.
What Do Safeties Actually Do In A Modern Steelers Defense?
Well, some of everything. So much of everything that it’s impossible to write an adequate summary in anything less than a series of articles. Versatility may actually be the single biggest asset a Safety can bring to the table, along with the football IQ to use that versatility. So I’m going to approach this with a couple of observations, and a list of some primary tasks that Safeties attend to. That should help to illustrate what the different prospects can offer.
Generality #1: Safety depth always has to balance between (A) a veteran who reliably heads in the right direction but has lost a step, and can arrive there a beat too late for comfort, versus (B) the brilliant young player who flashes toward the play only to find he’s been tricked in the wrong direction. “A” invites death by a thousand cuts. “B” invites death by land mine. Things will seem okay, and then, Boom! Pieces go flying and points go up for the other team.
General Observation #2: “Why can’t we find players who simply do the job without being extremely one or the other? It can’t be that hard or Safety would be viewed as a premium position instead of CB or Edge.”
Every coach on the planet will tell you the so-called “premium positions” get exaggerated amounts of both credit and blame. From QB on down, football truly is the ultimate team sport. Yes, there are skill sets that are harder to find, which helps to make shades of value in draft terms. And yes, some positions can have a marginally bigger impact on a game if they dominate or collapse. But you’re almost always talking about pennies here and nickels there, not dollar bills. No defense is perfect, nor close to perfect.
General Observation #3: Safeties and ILB’s have grown in importance as modern offenses focus ever more on finding individual mismatches. Those inside players were the ones you targeted a decade or two ago. Now they’re the ones who glue a defense together, allowing for more bend and less break. Here is that promised list of typical Safety tasks:
- Free Safety playing “single high” center field. Float very deep, read the offensive play design, read the QB, and then flash across the field to make the PBU or interception, and at least to make the tackle. The goal is to force QB’s to make stronger throws into smaller windows, and to make him pay for the slightest mistake if he tries. All while freeing up the Strong Safety to help in the box. Requires great physical speed and football IQ.
- Playing “cover 2” center field. Same idea but with two Safeties to shrink the size of the ultra-deep zone(s). Eases the need for freakish speed, but weakens the team underneath because the Safeties have further to go in run support.
- Assisting in double coverage.
- Playing “cover 3” center field. Same idea again, with the same issue about weakening the box. Often puts a lot of pressure on the CB’s to win in press coverage. Can paradoxically lead to deep passes because the Safeties have to be thinking more about downhill tackling to compensate for having fewer players in the box. The next step is “Quarters”.
- Those are all zone concepts, but Safeties must be able to carry man coverage against receivers going through the zone, especially if they’re heading deep.
- Communications hub across the secondary, and also for the defensive front backward into the secondary.
- Enforcer over the middle. Hard to do in the modern game. Players like Ryan Clark were known for preventing deep passes down the middle through intimidation. The ball takes time to get there, and they would all but decapitate receivers who had to wait too long. The resulting fear led to alligator arms, lack of focus, etc. Still a factor even today, but less so.
- Man coverage against TE’s a/k/a “TE Eliminator.” Awfully hard to do because of the mismatch athletic talents of today’s Move Tight Ends. Minkah Fitzpatrick is a genius at this, but using him for the task lets the offense avoid his big play ability. Terrell Edmunds has quietly become very good at the task, being a similarly freakish athlete himself. Edmunds is a big reason why Pittsburgh has not been gashed by TE’s in the last two years in the same way as the half decade before that.
- “Big Nickel” coverage. This is one of those hybrid positions, straddling the line between a slot-CB who can be physical, and a Safety who is particularly good at coverage. The little we saw of Tre Norwood suggests that he could succeed in his hybrid role, which would be great news.
- “Big Nickel” run support. Straddling the line toward being an extra ILB.
- Disguise. Modern defenses routinely switch their coverage schemes right after the snap. That usually involves a Safety flying over to some new position on the field. Note how much this mixes the required football IQ, foot speed, and communication skills.
- Run support for when both the D-Line and the ILB’s cannot get the job done. The single best indicator of how bad Pittsburgh’s run defense actually was in 2021 doesn’t lie in the yardage or big plays allowed. It’s the fact that Minkah Fitzpatrick was the team’s leading tackler, and Terrell Edmunds its number two. “Safeties” indeed.
- Strong Safety coverage on midfield passing plays, in both zone and man. Includes closing on outlet receivers who scape LB efforts to cover.
- Recognizing and closing holes created by someone else’s mistake.
- Several more that do not pop to mind at the moment. Plus all the locker room and off-field stuff, of course.
That’s a loooong list, isn’t it? And that’s the overall point. Safety is an incredibly demanding position above the neck, with physical demands that call for all around athletic talent and size in the 190-220 range depending on your job. If the team extends Fitzpatrick (as expected) and can re-sign Edmunds, we will be assured of one great and one quality starter for the next several years, who already know how to work in unison. Plus whatever Norwood may become. Not a lot in the way of depth behind either starter, but these are positions that rarely rotate the starters out unless there is an injury. Remove either of those two starters, however, and we go into emergency mode.
THE 2022 DRAFT CLASS AT SAFETY
All of the above means that we really need to take a close look at the entire Safety class. And that really, really sucks for me because I’m simply not prepared to give you all an accurate summary this early in the process. Safeties are hard to evaluate, and the shifting level of need/want means we need to do it the slow way. One at a time, finishing up sometime in March.
So what I’m going to do here is provide a very early summary of the players that we should be watching. It won’t be particularly accurate or particularly fair, but it should be enough to give us a base to start moving forward. Note that it includes a few CB’s who
Please chime in with your corrections to the suggested grades. All of this is very tentative.
|1:05||S Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame. (Junior). 6’4”, 220 lbs. with ___” arms and ___” hands. A Colbert Special all day, every day, so good that you’d draft him no matter what just to build a defense around him. Top 5 talent. Ain’t gonna happen.|
|1:20||S Jaquan Brisker, Penn St. (Senior). 6’1”, 204 lbs. with ___” arms and ___” hands. Will be a 23 year old rookie. If the Steelers fail to sign Terrell Edmunds, Jaquan Brisker could vault as high as being into contention for the pick at 1:20. Everyone, including this long January scouting profile from PFN, agrees that he’s a Round 1 athlete who is equally capable at both Free and Strong Safety. Reviewers also agree that he “gets it.” Pairing Brisker with Fitzpatrick would open up the chance of creating an almost unique defense because both of them can play Free and Strong Safety with equal facility, and probably at all-star levels. QB’s would go mad trying to account for both young talents as they wove, twisted, and played games to disguise the actual shell. The pre-Senior Bowl Bleacher Report scouting profile agrees, ending with a late-1st grade that could go up with testing. Same for this fine January scouting profile.|
|2:01||SS/FS Jordan Battle, Alabama. (Junior). 6’1”, 210 lbs. with ___” arms and ___” hands. This young man would be a perfect Round 2 pick if Edmunds departs, but is unlikely to fall that far. Fringe-1st all the way, as highlighted by this admiring January scouting profile. High IQ, good size, well trained, and fast enough to play deep as well as in his more natural box. Tremendous tackler too, which will be a big deal given all the clean up work Edmunds has quietly performed. He misses a few, but the core is there and it’s really a matter of consistency. The January Bleacher Report scouting profile notes that he has the playmaker gene, but ends with a Round 3 grade because of questions about coverage ability.|
|2:12||S Lewis Cine, Georgia. (Junior). 6’1”, 200 lbs. with ___” arms and ___” hands. A multipurpose Safety who put on a tremendous show in the national championship game, where he showed coverage, pursuit, and tackling talent together against future NFL talent under the brightest of lights. The Bleacher Report scouting profile from January describes him as a model zone Safety who’s at his best when he can read and react in space, but dislikes his tendency to go for kill shots high rather than making surer, fundamentally sound tackles around the legs. The January NFL Draft Buzz scouting profile agrees but is more positive, ending with a Round 2 grade versus the B/R Round 3. This January TDN article is close to a rave, ending with phrases like “versatile chess piece” and “high-level blitzer.”|
|2:12||FS Daxton Hill, Michigan. (Junior). 6’0”, 192 lbs. with ___” arms and ___” hands. He’s played the multipurpose Safety role in college, but hopefully not in the pros. At some level you need protect these guys from themselves! Especially the ones like Hill, who combine an outsized heart in an undersized frame. A team leader with a reputation for a high football IQ, he’s another fine prospect with great range and good tackling ability, who simply “gets it.” Barring injuries, he’s got an extremely high floor as a starter somewhere in the league. But is he what Pittsburgh wants to fill in for Edmunds? Or is he just a really fine backup for Minkah? This admiring January scouting profile ends with a late-1st grade, calling him the #2 Safety of the class behind Kyle Hamilton. Compare that with the 4th Round grade in this Bleacher Report scouting profile from the same basic time.|
|3:24||FS Verone McKinley III, Oregon. (RS Junior). 5’11”, 193 lbs. with ___” arms and ___” hands. A fine Cover 2 safety who can easily handle shallow coverage duties, play deep in a pinch, and will also make the interception if a QB makes any kind of mistake. Lacks the superb speed you want for a true single-high FS, and the combination of size and hitting power you want in a box Safety, but has both assets in good enough amounts to avoid being a one trick pony. This January scouting profile ends with a comparison to Earl Thomas (!) from an author with a self avowed, multiyear draft crush. This more cynical January scouting profile ends with a Round 5 grade based on concerns about his tackling and overall lack of big time physicality. This goes to an early February TDN interview.|
|4:01||S Markquese Bell, Fla. A&M. (Senior). 6’2”, 205 lbs. with ___” arms and ___” hands. A solid prospect if you’re after a developmental Safety who’d fit what Pittsburgh wants. He’s proven the ability to play in the box, with good size but average power, and as a free safety over the top. The flaws are in the above-the-neck game, where he’s been vulnerable to fakes and to QB’s who know how to manipulate Safeties with their eyes. Very good hands for INT’s. He’s also got a lean, whipcord kind of build that would benefit from an NFL training regime. Here is a brief but decent January scouting profile.|
|4:16||SS Jalen Pitre, Baylor. (RS Senior). 5’10¾”, 196 lbs. with short 30⅞” arms and 9⅛” hands. This early January scouting profile describes an undersized Box Safety with the playmaker gene. The sort of young man who plays bigger than he is, with “springy,  sudden lateral twitch,” explosiveness, and range. Would grade higher if he had the size as well as the other assets desired for a true Strong Safety. Surprised a lot of people when he displayed good coverage chops at the Senior Bowl.|
|5:01||S Bubba Bolden, Miami. (RS Senior). 6’2”, 206 lbs. with 31⅝” arms and 9¼” hands. Had to leave USC as a sophomore due to what seems to be drunken stupidity at a party, Bolden transferred to Miami in 2019; just in time to injure his ankle (maybe an achilles). 2021, his team captain year, ended in October with shoulder surgery. But when he isn’t hurt, Bolden is a gigantic bundle of intriguing talents with good experience and tremendous potential. This goes to a brief but decent January scouting profile.|
|5:01||S Nick Cross, Maryland. (Junior). 6’1”, 215 lbs. with ___” arms and ___” hands. A raw bundle of talent who has been used everywhere from single-high FS to weakside LB in a 4-3. Desperately needs to settle into one position and learn it well, at which point he can be properly evaluated. The size suggests that Strong Safety and Cover 2 would be ideal.|
|5:01||CB/S Kyler McMichael, N. Car. (Senior). 5’11⅞”, 205 lbs. with 31” arms and 9¼” hands.|
|5:01||S Tykee Smith, Georgia. (RS Junior). 5’10”, 198 lbs. with ___” arms and ___” hands. A multipurpose Safety who may be best as a Nickel player in the box, much like Tre Norwood proved able to do in 2021. Would grade out a full round higher if not for that overlap.|
|5:01||S Sterling Weatherford, Miami (OH). (RS Senior). 6’4”, 215 lbs. with 31 3/8 ” arms and 8 5/8” hands. I can remember the buzz when Miles Killebrew came out, with film galore of him blasting victims into next week. Weatherford is a 6’4” version who may prove to be similarly limited to being a special teams star. Or not. It’s hard to tell because the size and potential are so different from the norm. Definitely a box player because his speed can be questioned.|
|5:01||CB/FS Tariq Woolen, UTSA. (Junior). 6’3⅜”, 205 lbs. with long 33½” arms but small 8⅝” hands.|
|5:16||SS Tycen Anderson, Toledo. (RS Senior). 6’1⅜”, 204 lbs. with 33” arms and 9⅝” hands. Growing up as a Steelers fan earns you some points. Anderson is described as a pure box Safety with some good developmental assets.|
|5:16||S Reed Blankenship, Middle Tenn. (RS Senior). 6’¾”, 196 lbs. with 31⅝” arms and 9¼” hands. This is a name to watch. As outlined in this admiring TDN article by Kyle Crabbs, Blankenship took the world by storm in 2019, but then followed it up with a distinctly meh 2020. So he returned for 2021 and, “while the decision paid off, the buzz hadn’t quite returned.” Has enough unique size and athleticism to make the “Feldman Freaks” list back in the day, he profiles best as a Box Safety whose best trait is a tireless motor. The small school creates some LOC questions. Owen Straley’s Day 1 Shrine Bowl review notes “a tendency to stay too high in his pedal and drive, limiting his ability to transition quickly.”|
|5:16||S Bryan Cook, Cincinnati. (Senior). 6’1”, 203 lbs. with ___” arms and ___” hands. A tremendous tackler in the box who projects as a special teams demon early on, but the sort of player that will need a year or two of study time before finding a way to contribute as a defender too.|
|5:16||S Kerby Joseph, Illinois. (Junior). 6’1”, 200 lbs. with 33 1/4” arms and 10 1/2” hands. A one year wonder who flashed onto the scene in 2021, which makes it hard to determine how he will continue to grow as a pro.|
|5:16||S Quentin Lake, UCLA. (RS Senior). 6’1⅛”, 201 lbs. with 31⅜” arms and 9¼” hands. Carnell Lake’s son may never be the star his father became, but he definitely has a road to being an NFL pro. He plays the hybrid Cover-Safety role that matches a genuine need in modern sub-package football, and he has the fluid movement skills, football IQ, and ability to communicate needed to do it at the next level. The Depot Shrine Bowl reports could be glowing, and he was definitely a charming interview. This goes to his gif-supported interview with Owen Straley.|
|5:16||SS Juanyeh Thomas, Ga. Tech. (Senior). 6’0½”, 207 lbs. with 32” arms and 9⅝” hands. A three year starter who does very well in the box when he can come downhill to finish a play, but has never figured out how to succeed in coverage. Was listed as 3” taller and 10 lbs. bigger in college, and brings enough lumber that people believed it.|
|6:01||S Nick Grant, Virginia. (RS Senior). 6’0¼”, 191 lbs. with 31⅛” arms and 9⅜” hands. A traditional Safety who plays best when allowed to lurk in zone coverage and then fire in to either break up or tackle the catch. The tackling part could definitely use some work|
|6:01||S Damarri Mathis, Pitt. (RS Senior). 5’10⅝”, 197 lbs. with 31¾” arms and 8¼” hands. A developmental cover-Safety with solid skills but limited athleticism. The descriptions sound a lot like Tre Norwood, who is already on the team and playing surprisingly well. Projects as a fine special teamer no matter what.|
|6:01||S Russ Yeast, Kansas St. (RS Senior). 5’10”, 192 lbs. with 31¼” arms and 9” hands. A versatile cover-Safety in the Tre Norwood mold, who has played every DB position there is during his college career. Excelled in coverage during Shrine Bowl practices, even on players who’d been abusing the true CB’s.|
|7:16||S Brad Hawkins, Michigan. (Senior). 6’0¼”, 210 lbs. with 31⅛” arms and 9⅜” hands. A lower level version of the Steelers Marcus Allen. Special teams stud, but ill suited for playing in a modern defense.|