Steelers Sign Sean Davis – Is Pittsburgh Safe at Safety?

The big “news” out of Pittsburgh last week saw the Steelers sign safety Sean Davis, their second round pick from the 2016 NFL Draft (Brandon Boykin also made other “news” but let’s save that for another post.)

Signing draft picks, even first rounders, is basically a pro forma exercise following the rookie wage scale mandated by 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement, so much that some rookies are even forgoing agents. So the essential question behind the Steelers signing Sean Davis is simple:

  • Are the Steelers safe at safety with Sean Davis?

Sean Davis comes to the Steelers after a successful NCAA career with the Maryland Terrapins, where he played at both safety and cornerback. It was no secret that the Steelers needed a safety heading into the draft, and many fans wanted Pittsburgh to draft Vonn Bell out of OSU.

Matt C. Steel of Jim Wexell’s Steel City Insider argues that Davis is the better pick than Vonn Bell:

…I don’t think Neal will ever be more than a solid coverage safety. He will hit you like Ronnie Lott, but Davis isn’t exactly shy when getting a ball carrier to the ground. It’s one of the reasons I wasn’t as high on Bell, who doesn’t bring the wood when tackling. Bell has the average size of a corner with average athletic measurables. If the Steelers want a safety to match-up physically with the likes of Rob Gronkowski and Tyler Eifert, Davis is the better choice.

If Steel’s sources are correct, the Steelers actually had Keanu Neal as the top safety of the 2016 NFL Draft, but Neal was long gone by the time the Steelers picked at 25, having been taken by the Atlanta Falcons at 17. In Steel’s view however, Pittsburgh didn’t miss much:

But there was only one safety in the draft over 6-0 with 4.4 speed, top-ranked agility, corner experience and the physicality to explode through a player’s soul with a hard hit. That was Davis. And Davis wasn’t coming off an ACL injury, either.

Those are all positives, and unlike the Steelers first round pick Artie Burns, most of the draft nics are hailing the pick of Sean Davis. Fair enough. But, as Art Rooney Sr. once cautioned, reflecting back on the franchise’s first 40 years of futility, “Everyone’s a winner on draft day.”

  • To that end, Sean Davis arrives in Pittsburgh on the heels of a long Steelers search for stability at safety.

Actually, that over states things. From 2004 to 2013, the Steelers Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Chris Hope provided plenty of stability for the Steelers at safety. The problem is that the Steelers succession plan at safety has seen one miss fire after another.

The Steelers drafted Anthony Smith in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft with an eye towards paring him with Polamalu. Smith however preferred to showboat, make trash talk he couldn’t back up and injure his own teammates in practice. Steelers discarded Smith after his rookie contract was up, and drafted Ryan Mundy and signed Will Allen as a free agent.

Alas, that experiment ended during the Steelers 2012 self-destruction at Oakland’s black hole, when Mundy made an illegal hit on Darrius Heyward-Bey (video available as of 5/21/16).

The Steelers turned to Will Allen for the balance of the 2012 season, and let Mundy go, perhaps in err, as a free agent. Their next move was to trade up to get Shamarko Thomas in the 2013 NFL Draft. A year later, they let Ryan Clark depart as a free agent, and signed Mike Mitchell as a free agent.

Between injuries and unfamiliarity of playing with Polamalu, Mitchell struggled in 2014 in Pittsburgh, but Michael Mitchell played well in 2015. As for Thomas….

  • Shamarko Thomas got snaps early in his rookie season, but since then his seasonal snap counts seem best measured in single digits.

Ostensably, Sean Davis will start on the depth chart behind both Shamarko Thomas and Ross Ventrone on the Steelers depth chart at safety, but the real man to beat is Robert Golden. The Steelers resigned Robert Golden prior to the start of free agency, and his play in 2015 shows that Golden has the skills to be a serviceable starter.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but the Steelers are looking for Sean Davis to be far more than serviceable at this crucial position in the secondary.

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