Morgan Burnett signing brings more than safety depth to the Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers safety depth chart wasn’t exactly a strong suit in 2017. Following the recent releases of safeties Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden, the cupboard became even barer. Aside from some futures contract hopefuls, the Steelers only had Sean Davis and J.J. Wilcox under contract. With Wilcox virtually non-existent in games after a few weeks played into the season, the team had an obvious hole on the roster to fill.

While most analysts feel the team will still look to fill out that part of the roster in this year’s upcoming NFL Draft, Pittsburgh also needed to find veteran depth to supplement their draft plans. With little cap room, the team entertained signing several safeties, but couldn’t afford the top dollar safety of this year’s free agency class, Tyrann Mathieu. The team also met with former Miami Dolphin Michael Thomas, who left the facility Monday without a contract, but ended up making a splash in the early morning when news broke of a deal between the Steelers and former Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett.

Burnett, who is expected to sign in the coming days, is only the second free agent the Steelers have signed, making them one of the least active teams this free agency period. However, that’s usually the case for Pittsburgh, who invests their big money in players they acquire through the draft while supplementing their roster with value-priced free agents. Last weekend they brought LB Jon Bostic on board to help fill a gap in the inside linebacker rotation, and now Burnett appears to fill a huge hole at the safety position.

The move greatly helps the Steelers. With Burnett’s arrival, the team has a starter-capable player who will allow them to be patient and draft the best prospect available with their top selections in the upcoming draft. The team won’t have to “reach” to fill a need, something that they’ve done in past seasons with picks such as Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree, Artie Burns, and T.J. Watt. (I say “reach” because sometimes those moves work, and sometimes they do not.)

Playing under Dom Capers in Green Bay, who is also well known for his time as a defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, Burnett is a player who very much fits the mold of what the team needs. He’s a sure tackler, a fairly consistent player who has missed time in the past, but not so much as to draw a red flag when compared to any player who takes their lumps throughout a full NFL season.

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Aside from draft flexibility, Burnett also brings flexibility to the Steelers defense. Versatility is always a trait seen when the front office builds each year’s roster, and the former Packer is no stranger to being shuffled around the defensive backfield. The 29-year-old safety enters his ninth pro season having played both free safety and strong safety in Green Bay. While there’s been speculation of moving the equally versatile Sean Davis to Mike Mitchell’s abandoned free safety spot, the Steelers hand is no longer forced to do so. They still have Wilcox on the roster, who is more suited to a strong safety role but also played in Mitchell’s spot last season.

And as mentioned above, Burnett’s versatility means the Steelers don’t necessarily have to pull the trigger in the draft on a safety that fits a specific mold, as they have one (Burnett) and possibly two (Davis) players who are interchangeable. If they feel they want more of a box safety, they can choose to select one. If they feel they want that dimebacker hybrid style player, such as other they’ve met with prior to past drafts, that option is on the table as well.

If anything Burnett could end up being another solid veteran free agent addition at safety. Mitchell’s tenure was tenuous, but he was far from a complete bust or the worst free agent signing the team has made. Let’s not forget that Mitchell replaced another outstanding free safety pickup, Ryan Clark, who joined the Steelers at age 27 and played with them for eight seasons.

Burnett could have a lot of treads left on his tires, and at the very least could bridge a gap between himself and his eventual successor. In 12 games last season, the safety had 48 solo tackles and added another 20 in 12 games. The previous season, he had 68 solo and 23 assisted tackles, along with two interceptions.

In eight seasons Burnett has started 102 games, so he’s not new to the NFL, and that could be a good thing for the Steelers. A familiarity with schemes under Capers, a student under the Dick LeBeau coaching tree, should make Burnett a better fit than Mitchell too. Mitchell came over from the Carolina Panthers when he joined the Steelers, where his previous team employed different gap schemes (by virtue of playing a 4-3 versus a 3-4). He also had Clark’s big shoes to fill, along with playing alongside future Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu.

Burnett will have no such pressure other than fitting in and doing his job. With his resume and ability, I believe this could turn out to be an excellent addition for the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers.

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