As the Pittsburgh Steelers get ready for OTAs to begin this week and players start to arrive in town, one of the position groups that is likely to be overlooked in all the excitement is at safety. While much has already been made about the battle for starting quarterback between Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky, and Mason Rudolph, and the defense’s efforts to improve their ability to stop the run, less attention has been paid to the secondary. And, when the secondary is discussed, it’s typically focused more on the Steelers presumed starting outside cornerbacks, Levi Wallace and Ahkhello Witherspoon.
Before the reacquisition of 2018 first round draft pick earlier this spring, Terrell Edmunds, the Steelers let it be known that they didn’t feel that they had a starting strong safety on their roster, leading to speculation that they would bring in former Kansas City Chiefs’ safety, Tyrann Mathieu. Ultimately, the Steelers chose to bring back Edmunds on a team-friendly one-year “prove it” contract, rather than spending big money to bring in Mathieu. Since then, there has been little discussion of the position with Edmunds and two-time First Team All-Pro Minkah Fitzpatrick slated as the team’s starters.
Last year, the Steelers carried five safeties on their 53-man roster, and they presently have seven on the roster. While this can hardly be classified as a camp battle, there certainly will be some competition between the five non-starters for the three depth-safety positions that the Steelers will likely allocate.
Today, we’ll take a quick look at the members of the Steelers’ safety room and their likelihood to make the roster.
Mikah Fitzpatrick: A Lock to Make the 53
The Steelers have a history of great safety play, with names such as Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, and Donnie Shell instantly coming to mind. Fitzpatrick certainly looks to be the next in that great line of Steelers’ safeties. Since coming to the Steelers in 2019 via a trade with the Miami Dolphins, Fitzpatrick has been a phenomenal playmaker, hauling in 11 interceptions and four fumble recoveries during his tenure with the team.
In his relatively short NFL career, Fitzpatrick has had two All-Pro honors and has made the Pro Bowl three times. While some may point to a comparatively less-explosive 2021 season as a sign of regression, it’s worth keeping in mind that during that season, Fitzpatrick was asked to assist in a major way with the team’s lackluster run defense, and wracked up 124 tackles in doing so, significantly surpassing his previous high of 80 tackles. That assistance didn’t go unnoticed, and Fitzpatrick has continued to draw praise as a selfless member of the team who will do whatever he is asked to do in order to win.
With contract talks beginning to potentially make Fitzpatrick the highest paid safety in the league, expect a big year out of number 39 with improved play up-front to stop in the run.
Terrell Edmunds: A Lock to Make the 53
I’m not going to spend too much time relitigating the saga that was Terrell Edmunds’ experiment with free agency given how recent it was, but, obviously Edmunds is back with the Steelers after receiving little interest from other teams.
The Steelers, it would appear, always intended to bring Edmunds back…for the right price.
With their low-contract offer now in place, the team can rest easy in at least knowing what they have at strong safety going into the season. While Edmunds has received some flak for not living up to his first-round pedigree, he has continued to develop as a safety year-after-year. Edmunds has five career interceptions, with four of them coming in the past two years. That’s progress, no doubt. And while Edmunds has never forced a fumble in his NFL career, he has been quietly solid on the field, leading the team in tackles for more than a single season and putting an end to the team’s inability to cover tight ends.
While Edmunds isn’t a superstar, he is certainly not a liability, and he is a near lock to be the team’s starting strong safety. Oh, and Minkah Fitzpatrick likes playing beside him, that has to count for something.
Tre Norwood: A Near Lock
One of the more surprisingly impressive rookies during the 2021 season, Tre Norwood played above his seventh round weight for much of the season and flashed significant potential at times during his rookie campaign. A product of the University of Oklahoma, Norwood was the 2020 Big-12 interception leader and was actually the third-place finisher for the NCAA interception leader that same year. Due to his slight frame and yet-to-be fully polished skill set, Norwood fell to pick 245 and was scooped up by the Steelers. At the time, Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin described Norwood as a “Swiss-Army Knife” and was excited about his potential.
Norwood had a solid rookie season, seeing the field on 388 snaps and starting for the team on three occasions. While there is certainly room for growth, the rookie flashed his talent at times, most memorably when he picked-off struggling Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, allowing former Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger one last chance to line-up in victory formation at Heinz Field. While Norwood likely tracks to be a depth piece in 2021, with Cameron Sutton the likely starter at slot corner, look for him to have a big leap in year two when given the opportunity to play.
Damontae Kazee: Likely to Make the 53
Former Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys safety, Damontae Kazee, is a recent addition to the Steelers, who was quietly signed to the team immediately following the 2022 NFL Draft. Similarly to Edmunds, and frankly many of the safeties in the diminished 2021 safety free-agency market, Kazee received only passing interest from teams during the off-season and was ultimately signed to a low-cap hit deal. Kazee has started a total of 49 games in his career, giving the Steelers additional veteran depth at the position.
Able to play slot, free safety, or strong safety, Kazee has flashed at times, having a stellar 2018 season in which he had seven of his career 12 interceptions and forced one fumble. While he has had a down couple of years with the Falcons and the Cowboys, the San Diego State product is still fairly young at 28, and the Steelers could be just the place for him to rekindle his playmaking ability as a ballhawk, if given the chance.
Miles Killebrew: Likely to Make the 53
A longtime Detroit Lion, safety Miles Killebrew came to the Steelers in the 2021 off-season and was touted as a special-teams ace. He certainly proved that he deserves that designation, being a prolific special teamer and officially blocking two punts, one for a touchdown in the regular season opener against the Buffalo Bills. On a team that under the leadership of coach Danny Smith takes special teams very seriously, Killebrew carved out a solid role for himself, playing 68% of all special teams snaps (as opposed to 4% of all defensive snaps). Killebrew was signed to a new two-year deal during the 2021 off-season.
In the mold of previous Steelers who are largely on the roster as a result of their special teams prowess, such as alums safety Jordan Dangerfield and linebacker Tyler Matakevich, if Killebrew makes the roster, it will likely be in that capacity as opposed to his abilities as a safety.
Karl Joseph: Borderline to Make the 53
Former Las Vegas Raiders and Cleveland Browns safety Karl Joseph came to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ practice squad during the 2021 season and was ultimately promoted to the 53-man roster as a depth piece. The former first-rounder out of West Virginia University saw very little playing time in Pittsburgh, only being active in two games and taking a total of 17 snaps for the team.
While Joseph has at times shown promise, having five interceptions and one forced fumble in his six season NFL stint, he hasn’t had one standout season to point to as an example of his ceiling, having one interception a season for his first five seasons (and none last year). Joseph was recently in the news for giving up his collegiate number, eight, to incoming QB Kenny Pickett, and I would suspect that that will be among his few headlines in 2022. With the addition of the statistically superior Kazee to the roster and Killebrew likely to fill the special teams role, Joseph will likely lose his role as the veteran in the room, and is a borderline candidate to make the roster.
Donovan Stiner: Longshot to Make the 53
Florida State University Gator, Donovan Stiner will enter the Steelers’ 2022 training camp with a year of experience with the team under his belt. A member of the team’s practice squad during the 2021 season, the Steelers brought Stiner back this past off-season for a chance to compete for a roster spot. The 6-2 Houston, Texas native had a solid collegiate career, with six interceptions and one sack in the SEC. Stiner was given decent marks in last year’s training camp, and he likely looks to compete for that fifth safety spot, but will have to perform above par at special teams to have a shot at making it on the roster.
Final Safety Roster Projection for Steelers (5): Fitzpatrick, Edmunds, Norwood, Kazee, Killebrew
What do yinz think? Would you keep a different combination of players? Would you like to see the Steelers add someone else? Comment below or tweet at me at @JakeVasilj!