Tim Benz: Steelers’ Terrell Edmunds has athleticism and the latitude to hone it

August 8, 2018
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Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds during ota work outs Thursday, May 24, 2018 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

Late in practice Wednesday, first-round pick Terrell Edmunds exploded in front of a pass across the middle. He converged with other defensive players, knocking the ball to the ground.

The PBU got a big pop from the defensive players on the field and on the sideline. Yet, a few moments later, Edmunds took his helmet off and rolled his eyes to his teammates.

“That was it. That was the play,” said Edmunds with a wry as smile as he went on to bemoan not getting an interception.

It wasn’t the first play of that ilk Edmunds has made in this training camp. He had a few nice plays against the run game Wednesday, as well.

I asked head coach Mike Tomlin if he has seen the raw athleticism billed when Edmunds was drafted in the first round manifest at times in drills.

“It has. And it should,” Tomlin said. “He’s a one. Those one characteristics show up routinely.”

It hasn’t been all sunshine and daisies for Edmunds at Saint Vincent though. He was beaten in the end zone a few times on the second full day of team drills.

“Sometimes they may beat you, sometimes you may knock it down,” Edmunds said. “We are making each other better. Iron sharpens iron.”

Wow. “Iron sharpens iron.” He’s already got his “Tomlinisms” down. Well done, rookie.

If Edmunds is a bit “boom or bust” early in his career, that’s OK. Heck, you could’ve used that description for Troy Polamalu and Ryan Shazier throughout their careers. And the Steelers defense needs some of that.

Keith Butler’s crew totaled 22 takeaways, right at the league median, in a three-way tie for 13th place. Sean Davis was the only safety to record an interception.

That needs to change. If this defensive unit is to improve from last year, it needs to get the ball back more often to shorten the possession times of other teams and put the Steelers’ high-powered offense back on the grass as quickly as possible; and perhaps in some short-field situations.

What Edmunds may lack early in his development in terms of consistency or polish may not be entirely important if other players on the team do their jobs. If Morgan Burnett can get healthy and be worthy of his $14 million dollar contract, he’ll start at strong safety. If Davis can show he is worthy of the team’s decision to make him the starting free safety, Edmunds won’t need to be immersed there either.

Instead, Edmunds can play in the nickel, dime, or “dollar” subpackages the Steelers have been experimenting with. In his first season, in those packages, Edmunds will have more of a chance to shine while running a lower risk of screwing up.

On Wednesday, Tomlin pointed out that Edmunds has played exclusively strong safety thus far in camp. But that has largely been because Burnett has been injured.

Once the “Dollar Defense” gets deployed with Burnett on the field, that look may allow Edmunds to play a kind of “rover” position as he did at times while enrolled at Virginia Tech. Again, that would cater to his athleticism and play-making ability.

It’s not like Edmunds is fundamentally unsound, though. As the Steelers have been hammering a message of improved tackling, Edmunds claims he usually graded out well as a tackler with the Hokies. Some NFL scouting reports disagree, but Edmunds insists that can be a positive to his game.

“Everything was smooth there,” Edmunds responded. “The coaches always said I did well there. I’m just trying to bring it up to this next level.”

One thing Edmunds has going for himself is something that most first-round draft choices don’t. That’s a lack of spotlight. He’s going to have time to develop without a ton of scrutiny. The two guys starting in front of him at safety will take that. So will the two guys drafted behind him in receiver James Washington and quarterback Mason Rudolph. They play much more glamorous, attention grabbing positions.

You watch. Next Friday morning after the first preseason game, talk shows, columns and blogs will have already decided if Rudolph is Ben Roethlisberger’s successor or the next Ryan Leaf. We will have determined if Washington is John Stallworth, or Troy Edwards.

Very few columns and talk shows will be dedicated to analyzing what Edmunds did.

Unless, of course, that “one characteristic” athleticism flashes for a pick or a big hit. Then it’ll be nothing but praise.

“I didn’t read into all of that,” Edmunds dismissed. “Regardless of if I’m in the spotlight or not, I’m going to learn everything as fast as I can.”

The good news for Steelers fans is, he doesn’t really have to. The better news is, if he does, Edmunds may be responsible for getting this defense one step closer to the evolution it has been seeking the entire offseason.

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