Kevin Gorman: With Sean Davis out, free safety becomes a storyline for Steelers
Sean Davis isn’t happy about being stuck on the sidelines for the majority of training camp, a self-described cheerleader for the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary.
While recovering from a fractured ring finger on his left hand — taped to cover what Steelers coach Mike Tomlin called “an open wound” — the fourth-year free safety has missed the majority of practices in pads and won’t play in the preseason opener Friday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Heinz Field.
“Honestly, I’m just watching and picturing me out there,” Davis said. “It’s hard, being on the sideline. I’m just trying to stay encouraged, stay positive and help everybody out.”
Free safety is one of the more intriguing storylines of Steelers training camp, given Davis’ untimely injury and the playmaking ability of his under-the-radar replacement.
You will want to keep an eye on Kameron Kelly.
The 6-foot-2, 204-pounder from San Diego State is an alum of the Alliance of American Football, the short-lived spring league that folded in April. Kelly played wide receiver, cornerback and strong safety for the San Diego Fleet but has been getting the majority of repetitions with the Steelers’ first-team defense at free safety in place of Davis.
That increased opportunity, as Tomlin called it, is definitely a result of Davis’ injury. But Kelly is making the most of it by looking the part in clinging to receivers in coverage, breaking up passes and making open-field tackles. Even when undrafted free agent P.J. Locke took first-team reps in the seven shots goal-line drill Wednesday, Kelly intercepted a Mason Rudolph pass with the second unit.
“The thing I will say about him is, he’s proven to be ready for the opportunity,” Tomlin said of Kelly. “He’s highly conditioned. He’s making good use of it.”
Davis is impressed enough by Kelly that he is itching to return to practice as soon as possible. He hopes to be a full participant next week. Until then, Davis only can daydream while watching.
“I just picture myself out there,” Davis said. “I’m not too worried about Kam Kelly or any of the other guys out there. I’m just worrying about getting myself healthy and getting back out there as fast as I can so I can help this defense out.”
That has to be frustrating for Davis, who can relate to Kelly’s versatility after playing cornerback and strong safety in his first two NFL seasons. This will be the first time in his career he is entering a season at the same position as the previous season, and it’s one he still is learning to master so he can play to his full potential.
“I can’t wait to see how much better of a free safety I will be compared to last year,” said Davis, who led the Steelers in tackles with a career-high 90 in 2017 and 79 last season. “I’m looking forward to it. … I want to get a chance to show what I can do playing the same position two years in a row.”
Davis is entering the final year of his contract, so he has no lack for motivation with free agency a possibility. He knows there is value in his versatility as a defensive back who can play in man coverage and has started at both safety spots.
“I know my rookie contract is up,” Davis said. “I moved around, which shows value, but I’m just looking forward to really playing a good year at free safety and show everyone else what I can do. I’m multi-talented. I can play down in the box. I can play in the post. I can produce at either position, so I think that’s going to be a good asset for me next year.”
Whether that’s with the Steelers remains to be seen, so Davis isn’t taking any chances on doing further damage to his finger or risking the possibility of missing a regular-season game.
But he does have a preference on where he wants to play.
“Hell yeah, I would love to stay with the Steelers,” Davis said. “We’re an awesome team and love the atmosphere, man. It’s what I’m used to, and I know nowhere else. Playing for the black and gold would be awesome, but there’s always that sour side of the business, so you never know.”
Davis knows this much: He believes he is bigger, stronger, faster and smarter than last season. Once his finger is 100 percent, he wants to be 100-percent better than last season.
“I’m always looking for growth. I’m always looking to prove everybody wrong and continue to get better each and every year,” Davis said. “We’re trying to be the No. 1 secondary in the league. That’s the common mindset throughout the room. We’re all on the same page. … It’s time to show it.”
That’s the hardest part for Davis, who can put a finger on his frustration: He can’t show it from the sidelines.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .