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As the draft nears, solid safety remains the missing link in the Steelers defense

Strong security is a weak spot for the Pittsburgh Steelers. General Manager Kevin Colbert said so a few weeks ago at the NFL’s annual meeting.

Colbert said the Steelers have players capable of starting at 24 of the 25 positions on the roster, including specialists. The exception is strong safety, which has not been addressed in free agency and will become a priority in the draft if left unsatisfied.

After turning down the fifth-year option on Terrell Edmunds last year, the Steelers saw him enter the free agent market in March. The market hasn’t been kind to the four-year-old starter. He remains available with a more prominent player in that position, former All-Pro Tyrann Mathieu.

The Steelers retained former first-round pick Karl Joseph, but he was promoted to the active roster for just two games last season. Second-year defensive back Tre Norwood and special teams star Miles Killebrew are the other safeties with NFL experience.

Barring a signing before the draft, which begins April 28, the Steelers could consider using a first-round pick on a solid safety for the second time in five years. Unofficially, that would be three times in that span as the Steelers traded their 2020 No. 1 pick to acquire former first-rounder Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Before that, the Steelers used a first-round pick on a safety in 2003, and that guy from Troy Polamalu worked pretty well for them.

Since 2018, when three safeties were taken in the first round – led by Fitzpatrick going to Miami at No. 11, Derwin James to the Chargers at No. 17 and Edmunds to the Steelers at No. 28 – only two players at the position have been selected. among the top 32 choices. And they both went there in 2019. In the last two drafts, the first real safety hasn’t been taken before the No. 36 pick every year.

“There’s a real debate going on in the league about how high you take safeties,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said.

The safeties will not be excluded from the first round three years in a row thanks to the inclusion of Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton in this class. In 19 starts and 31 career games for the Fighting Irish, he had eight interceptions and 24 pass breakups.

Some prognosticators have rated the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Hamilton as the second-best player in the entire draft, although his stock may lose some due to his 4.59 time in the 40-yard dash. Jeremiah doesn’t think that will be the case.

“I think this kid is pretty unique,” Jeremiah said. “He’s so tall and long and lanky. The ability to make plays from deep middle as well as getting down and playing low and being a physical player, he can erase tight ends.

Other players who could be taken in the first or second round to team up with Fitzpatrick in the high school include Michigan’s Daxton Hill, Georgia’s Lewis Cine, Baylor’s Jalen Pitre and Gateway grad Jaquan Brisker of Penn State.

ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. lists the 6-0, 192-pound Hill as a value pick in the second half of the first round.

“He’s done everything in Michigan – slot corner, can play center field, tackle so well, he can get past the quarterback, he can intercept passes,” he said. “He has speed for football. It’s perfect for the way the game is played today.

With the amount of passing that continues to happen in the NFL and teams that rely on athletic tight ends to play the field, the importance of reliable safeties is paramount to success, Jeremiah said.

“I would say it’s more valuable than ever because it’s such a space game and it takes tacklers,” he said. “You need guys there who can cover and guys who can tackle, and then if you have the versatility to be able to multi-task, cover in the slot or match tight ends, I just think it doesn’t has never been so important to have guys like this.

Top 5 safeties

1. Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame, Jr., 6-4, 220

Limited to seven games before a season-ending knee injury, Hamilton still led Notre Dame with three interceptions. He also had 35 tackles and four pass breakups.

2. Daxton Hill, Michigan, Jr., 6-0, 192

A starter two years after being named the school’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, Hill has 70 tackles (4.5 for loss), two interceptions and nine pass breakups in 2021.

3. Lewis Cine, Georgia, Jr., 6-1, 200

In Georgia’s run for the national title, Cine was the team’s leading tackler (73). He also led the Bulldogs with nine pass breakups. He was named Defensive MVP of the National Championship Game after recording seven tackles and one pass breakup.

4. Jaquan Brisker, Penn State, Sr., 6-1, 200

He started 21 of 34 games during his three years on campus. He had 153 tackles, including 9.5 for loss, five interceptions and 14 pass breakups. In 2021, he became the third Penn State defensive back to record 5.5 tackles for loss in a season.

5. Jalen Pitre, Baylor, R-Sr., 6-0, 197

Big hitter who was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, leading the conference with 17.5 tackles for loss. He was the only FBS player with at least three fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles and two interceptions.

Great for the Steelers, day one

Daxton Hill, Michigan

The only safety with a consensus first-round rating is Kyle Hamilton, and he will be long gone by the time the Steelers make their pick. Hill may be a reach at No. 20, but for our purposes he fits because he’s the second-best safety on the board.

Best fit for the Steelers, day two

Jaquan Brisker, Pennsylvania

At least one national tipster, ESPN’s Todd McShay, has Brisker at the Steelers at No. 52. It would make sense if the Steelers are looking to consolidate the position on Day 2.

Best fit for the Steelers, day three

Nolan Turner, Clemson

Capitalized on his “super senior” luck and finished his career with 259 tackles, including 13.5 for loss, 20 pass breakups and seven interceptions. Turner, who is 6-1, 202, also made a Top 30 pre-draft visit to the Steelers.

Joe Rutter is a staff writer for Tribune-Review. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .