Earlier this week, I watched the first safety drafted in the 2018 NFL Draft, two-time All-Pro Minkah Fitzpatrick of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Today, I’m watching Terrell Edmunds, who is like Fitzpatrick in that he is a 2018 first-round selection who plays for the Steelers—and that’s the end of the similarities.
Edmunds was the most surprising pick of the 2018 draft. Edmunds, a 21-year-old and superb athlete, was considered an exciting developmental player taken a couple of rounds early when the Steelers snagged him with the 28th-overall pick. They certainly needed a safety right away, but Edmunds didn’t have “right away” ability.
Nevertheless, Edmunds started Game 1 and offered iron man availability over his first two years, but as a raw athlete without instincts or experience, he was often a liability on the field. That athleticism would occasionally show up on a pursuit tackle or big hit, but it didn’t really translate into impactful plays—certainly not enough to offset the plays left on the field. On over 2,000 snaps, Edmunds delivered one interception, one sack, and four passes defended. This past season? Two picks, eight passes broken up, and another sack to boot. The production has jumped. Unfortunately, the bad plays haven’t disappeared.
Edmunds still misses tackles in space, especially when coming from depth, and his shaky angles also show up when closing on routes from deep alignments. These weaknesses limit Edmunds’ best roles, which is tricky for the Steelers, who want to use him as a jack-of-all-trades player interchangeably with their star safety, Fitzpatrick. If Edmunds can’t steady out his play from traditional safety alignments, then Fitzpatrick has to spend more time playing the deep middle. With a plate of Fitzpatrick’s skill set, you’d like to free him up to roam.
Edmunds’ size and explosiveness have always helped him in the tight areas of the box, where Edmunds has lined up for the majority of his snaps in his career. Edmunds became a quasi-linebacker for the Steelers in games against lighter, speedier offenses, especially after Devin Bush Jr. went down with an injury in Week 6. When asked to crash into gaps as a blitzer, Edmunds is violent, physical, and disruptive. Edmunds’ tackling in tight spaces is much better than his tackling in space, making him an even more exciting run-fill defender.
But this has been true of Edmunds since his first year in the league; it’s what kept him on the field when everything else was shaky. Now, it seems like the influence of Fitzpatrick is helping him out in his zone coverage roles. Edmunds still needs to turn more good reps into pass breakups and more pass breakup into interceptions, but you can see on plays like this one against Tennessee, how he’s grown comfortable anticipating route combinations and playing with integrity. As the first route runner works through his zone, Edmunds keeps his eyes on the quarterback and passes him away, lurking in wait for the second crosser to come from the backside. A bit more discipline with his feet (and better hands), and this is a pick for Edmunds.
This is an extremely Fitzpatrickian play. Edmunds gets to play the short zone in this Cover 3 rotation, leaving Fitzpatrick as the deep middle safety, but whenever Fitzpatrick gets these short zones, he’s excellent at baiting and then breaking on throws. Because the Steelers like to zone blitz their nickel player in Mike Hilton, Edmunds also has to step down from depth and play off-man coverage behind the Steelers blitz packages—and again, his size, explosiveness, and physicality come in big here.
These are the reps the Steelers must continue seeing from Edmunds, whose fifth-year option they denied this past offseason. Edmunds has one more year on his deal with Pittsburgh, and if the Steelers are going to return him on a second contract, he has to continue on this arc. More of these plays are needed from Edmunds, who will work nicely in concert with Fitzpatrick over the next 5-plus years of Steeler football if he can continue to offer impact plays in short zone coverage.
Pittsburgh is appropriately in wait-and-see mode with Edmunds. But back when they made the pick, they knew it’d be a long developmental track for a young, and athletic player. We’re getting a hint now at what Edmunds can be—next season is the make-or-break opportunity.