By: Zach Metkler, GZ Sports Report Writer
After taking a look at the Steelers cornerback depth, I will now take a look at the safeties, which is a group that the Steelers have been trying to improve after having an extremely suspect secondary over the past few seasons.
Players on Roster:
-#23 Mike Mitchell (6’1″, 221 lbs.; 29 years old; 8 years experience; Ohio)
-#21 Robert Golden (5’11″, 202 lbs.; 25 years old; 5 years experience; Arizona)
-#28 Sean Davis (6’1″, 202 lbs.; 22 years old; Rookie; Maryland)
-#29 Shamarko Thomas (5’9″, 205 lbs.; 25 years old; 4 years experience; Syracuse)
-#35 Ross Ventrone (5’8″, 198 lbs.; 29 years old; 4 years experience; Villanova)
-#37 Jordan Dangerfield (5’11″, 199 lbs.; 25 years old; 1 year experience; Towson)
-#39 Ray Vinopal (5’10”, 197 lbs.; 24 years old; 1 year experience; Pittsburgh)
-#42 Jacob Hagen (6’3″, 205 lbs.; 24 years old; 1 year experience; Liberty)
Much like cornerback, safety is a position that the Steelers were in desperate need of improving. For years, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark roamed the secondary, making up one of the fiercest safety tandems in the league. After the 2013 season, the Steelers made no attempts to re-sign Clark, instead signing hard-hitting safety Mike Mitchell away from the Carolina Panthers. The Steelers seemed to be in a good position with Mitchell and Polamalu, who had just signed a 3-year contract extension after the 2013 season. However, it was not meant to be as Polamalu retired following the 2014 season.
During his first season with the Steelers, Mitchell left many fans craving more considering his solid production during his 1-year stint with the Panthers (66 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 4 interceptions, & 2 forced fumbles). After signing him to a 5-year, $25 million deal, Steelers fans expected much more out of him other than 71 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, and zero interceptions. While this stat line might not be terrible, the real story came on the field, where Mitchell was suspect in coverage and too often looked for the knockout hit instead of the sure tackle. After the season, Mitchell revealed that he had played through injuries. That trend continued this season, when Mitchell reportedly played through injuries. In 2 seasons, Mitchell has not missed a start, but has extensive injury history including two detached, a dislocated finger, a dislocated shoulder, and a torn labrum. During this offseason, Mitchell underwent surgery on his injured shoulder and his hand. These injuries combined with 0 DNP’s shows the level of Mitchell’s incredible toughness, although I typically am not a fan of players trying to stay on the field if it inhibits their ability to perform at a high level. Fortunately for Mitchell and the Steelers, 2015 was Mitchell’s breakout season that the team and fans had been waiting for, totaling 80 tackles, 9 passes defended, 3 interceptions, and 2 forced fumbles. With his surgeries in the rearview mirror, Mitchell is primed to continue his progression as the Steelers top safety. If he stays healthy, expect big things from the former 2nd-round pick.
After the team decided to not re-sign veteran Will Allen, special teams captain Robert Golden was widely expected to take over the reins at free safety. Golden has provided excellent depth for the Steelers over the past 4 seasons, leading to the Steelers signing him to a 3-year contract this offseason. Whenever Allen went down with an injury in 2015, Golden stepped in an played excellent football, tallying 17 tackles during that span. After going undrafted in 2012, Golden has improved steadily every season and slowly expanded his role. By the end of the 2015 season, Golden was routinely coming onto the field during obvious passing situations as a 3rd safety, leading to his first career interception against the Bengals in week 14 against the Bengals. While many people will count Golden since the draft concluded, listen closely: Golden has the potential to be a solid player on the Steelers defense. While he has little upside at this point, he knows the Steelers defense, has good technique, and has been an underrated leader (and player in general) for the Steelers. With unproven talent behind Mitchell at safety, Golden presents the best immediate option at this point in the offseason heading into training camp.
The biggest competition for Golden will come in the form of 2nd-round physical specimen
Sean Davis. At 6’1″, 202 lbs., Davis is a raw prospect who suffered from being moved around the secondary throughout his career. While at Maryland, Davis showed the ability to play both corner and safety, where he showed big-play potential and the ability to deliver devastating hits. Whenever he played corner, he showed inconsistency in man coverage, which was likely due to inexperience at the position. With the Steelers, he will settle in at safety, where he will not have to play man coverage nearly as much. One thing that should excite Steelers fans about Davis is his ability to cover tight ends aggressively, which has been an issue for the Steelers in recent years. While Golden will likely be the starter at the beginning of the season due Davis’s rawness, Davis will still get many chances to play off the bench in dime packages at the beginning of the season, which is the same role that Golden performed in last season. There is no denying that Davis is a much better prospect than Golden, especially when you consider that Golden has almost reached his ceiling as a player. The Steelers did not draft Davis to keep him off of the field for long. If Davis proves that he can handle time on the field in the Steelers subpackages, it is only a matter of time before he sees the field as a full-time starter.
The Steelers decision to draft Davis in the 2nd round and sign Golden to a 3-year deal are due to more than the secondary’s shortcomings over the past few seasons: they are largely due to Shamarko Thomas not living up to expectations. Entering his contract year, Thomas was originally drafted in 2013 as the heir apparent to Polamalu in the mold of former Colts safety Bob Sanders. After a decent rookie year and 2 starts, Thomas began training under Polamalu, both in the weight room and on the field. However, Thomas has seemingly not been able to grasp the fast pace of the NFL above the neck. This season is likely a do-or-die situation for Thomas. If Thomas can prove during training camp that he can show some level of worth other than special teams, he has a chance to potentially stick around. But if history has taught us anything about players on the back end of their rookie contracts that haven’t produced, it is that they won’t likely stick around for long with the Steelers (here’s looking at you Cortez Allen, Mike Adams, and potentially Jarvis Jones). Only time will tell. But right now, it doesn’t look good.
If Thomas doesn’t make the final 53-man roster (or the Steelers decide to keep more than 4 safeties), Ross Ventrone and Jordan Dangerfield will likely be the next best options. Ventrone’s time in the NFL has had it’s ups and downs to say the least. Since entering the league as an undrafted free agent, Ventrone has undergone 41 transactions that most comprised of being released, signed to the practice squad, promoted to the active roster, and released again, just to be re-signed to the practice squad. The humorous part of it all is that these transactions have all been between the Steelers and the Patriots. Ventrone is a feel good story that you almost feel required to pull for, much like a modern day Rudy. One aspect of Ventrone’s game that is easy to appreciate is his willingness on special teams, one area where he is clearly superior to Thomas. Fighting with Ventrone for snaps and attention will likely be Jordan Dangerfield, who has had his fair share of roster snubs over the past 2 seasons. The injury bug has gotten the best of Dangerfield throughout his career after being a relatively exciting prospect after being signed in 2014. If Dangerfield can remain healthy, he might be a prospect to keep an eye on. But that is a big IF.
Filling out the remainder of the safety depth chart are a familiar name and a not so familiar name. Former Pitt safety Ray Vinopal went undrafted in 2015 and only made it halfway through his training camp last season with the Cowboys. After a solid career at Pitt, Vinopal will be an interesting prospect to keep track of during training camp. He possesses solid tackling technique with a lot of thump, but his footwork needs a large amount of polish before he is ready to be considered an effective cover safety. If the Steelers can see enough potential in the former Panther, he might be lucky to find a practice squad spot. Alongside Vinopal is a lesser known prospect that presents an interesting case for the Steelers. Jacob Hagen might be the most tantalizing prospect in this entire group. Coming in a 6’3″, 205 lbs.,
Hagen recorded a 4.62 second 40, a 36.5″ vertical, a 10’4″ broad jump, and performed 22 reps on the bench press at 225 lbs. Not too bad for a long, rangy safety from small Liberty. Hagen is huge with the frame to potentially add more weight without losing any speed or explosion. While at Liberty, he showed he could be effective against the run and downright nasty against the pass. He was somewhat inconsistent in coverage by having lapses in awareness and decision making. This should not be surprising to many considering his small school pedigree. Hagen has the potential to turn some heads this preseason, especially if he can demonstrate his ballhawking skills. If I had to put money on one surprise prospect this year during training camp, my money would be on Hagen. Especially with this type of mindset:
“[I want to be known as] a guy that just come to work every day, doesn’t want to just show up on game days, put that work in. Sunday to Sunday each week, in the weight room, watching film and all of that. I want to be reliable, somebody that’s consistent.”
Not bad for an undrafted player. If you get the chance, you need to check out his college highlights. You won’t be disappointed.
Expected Depth Chart:
- Mike Mitchell (Starter)
- Sean Davis
- Robert Golden (Starter)
- Sean Davis
- Shamarko Thomas
Total Players Making the Final 53-Man Roster: 4
The top 3 safeties are all but locks to make the roster this year: Mitchell, Golden, and Davis will all, in some shape or form, will be the safeties you see in the secondary throughout the season. As it currently stands, Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden will be the two starting safeties, with Golden taking the reins at strong safety after spending most of his career as Will Allen’s backup at free safety. The reason I have him at strong safety largely is due to his time spent playing in the box in dime packages, a role in which he showed the ability to be quite effective. After Polamalu revolutionized the strong safety position, the Steelers have often played their strong safeties in the box (although it has often been difficult to really tell the difference between the two positions nowadays on the Steelers defense). The Steelers have almost taken the “best players available” approach in their secondary, especially with versatile players like Sean Davis. To begin the season, I am willing to believe that the “best players available” will be Mitchell and Golden with Davis serving as a 3rd safety during obvious passing downs. How long this stays this way will come down to how quickly Davis is able to grasp the nuances of the Steelers defense. As I previously projected, I believe that this transition will come around the bye week midseason and the Steelers will have two hard-hitting safeties roaming the secondary and line of scrimmage. With Davis’s versatility, the possibilities are really endless.
The last spot is a bit more shaky. Based on previous history and the position versatility of Davis (and potentially cornerback Doran Grant), I am convinced that the Steelers will keep just 4 safeties on the roster. The final safety to make the roster will likely come down to that players ability to make an impact on special teams. When looking at the players on the roster, Thomas makes the most sense mainly because of how much the Steelers have invested in him (even though it was only a 4th-round pick, the Steelers made an unusual move and traded up to select him). The Steelers have remained secretive about the Thomas situation so it is hard to get a grasp on how the team feels about him. My guess is that he will receive one final chance during his contract season to show some kind of progress but if not, he will be out the door after 2016. Ross Ventrone poses the only immediate threat to Thomas’s job and that very well could happen, especially with Ventrone’s proven track record on special teams. One name to keep an eye on will be Jacob Hagen. His potential is higher than many people will likely give him credit for and if the Steelers feel that they have a developmental prospect in him, don’t be surprised to see him make the practice squad and potentially replace Thomas in 2017.
Coming up next: Special Teams. Stay tuned!