PITTSBURGH – The retirement of Troy Polamalu following the 2014 season left a void at the strong safety position in the Steelers’ defense.
Veteran Will Allen filled that spot admirably in 2015 but was not re-signed when the Steelers selected Sean Davis in the second round of the 2016 draft.
After spending time as a nickel cornerback, Davis made the strong safety position his own and eventually was named Pittsburgh’s rookie of the year.
Both Davis and free safety Mike Mitchell, who turns 30 in June, return in 2017 after spending last season going through the learning process of playing together. The Steelers should be better off for that this season.
In terms of depth at the position, however, there’s not much starting experience. Robert Golden, who opened last season as the starting strong safety before giving way to Davis, Jordan Dangerfield and Jacob Hagen are the only other safeties on the roster.
The Steelers could move 32-year-old cornerback William Gay to safety in an effort to improve their depth at that position, or they could add a young safety in the NFL Draft, which will be held April 27-29.
Pittsburgh has eight selections in the seven-round draft, including two picks in the third round and the 30th pick in the first.
New Castle native Malik Hooker of Ohio State and Jamal Adams of LSU are considered the top two safety available in the draft, though both figure to be gone by the time the Steelers make their first pick. Both should be taken in the draft’s first 10 selections.
“It’s not sexy to talk safeties, and the only two we’ve really talked about are Malik Hooker or Jamal Adams,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “Of my top five safeties, Jabrill Peppers is the next one from Michigan, and he’s more of an in-the-box nickel linebacker. He’s just always around football, as is Budda Baker from Washington. I think he’s a nickel more than anything.
“I think a guy who would have to be interesting is Obi Melifonwu from Connecticut. He’s 6-4, 219 (pounds), and he’s probably going to run sub-4.5.”
Melifonwu did just that at the NFL Scouting Combine, running the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, showing off a 44-inch vertical leap and an 11-8 standing broad jump. And he did that at 224 pounds, five heavier than Mayock had guessed.
In other words, Melifonwu is a physical freak.
He’s not bad on the field, either. Melifonwu had 349 career tackles at Connecticut – 118 last season – with eight interceptions. The Steelers could be tempted to add another hard-hitting, speedy safety to their defense. Melifonwu, however, could take some time to develop.
Everything Melifonwu has in size, the 5-9, 195-pound Baker lacks. But the latter might be the best pound-for-pound player in this draft.
Baker played free safety at Washington and also lined up to cover slot receivers. Despite his lack of size, he was never afraid to mix it up at the line of scrimmage, as his 138 tackles, four sacks and five interceptions in just 39 career games suggests.
“God made me this height and all I can say is watch the film,” Baker said. “We always talk about how the film will set you free, so no matter how tall you are, how big you are, if you watch the film everything will take care of itself.”
Peppers might be the most mysterious player in this draft. A Heisman Trophy candidate at Michigan last season, he played linebacker, safety, running back and cornerback during his career. He also returned kicks.
That versatility might be an issue for Peppers. At 5-11, 213 pounds, he’s too light and not physical enough to play linebacker in the NFL. He also lacks the ball skills – he had one career interception – to be an elite safety.
“I think Peppers’ versatility was great,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said. “It also worked against him because he never could show what he could be to really define one position and really work that position.”
If the Steelers choose to pass on those first-round prospects, North Carolina State’s Josh Jones could be available in the second round. Florida’s Marcus Maye could interest them in the third round.