For a team that embraces a next-man-up approach when a starter isn’t on the field, the Pittsburgh Steelers put that philosophy to work in offseason practices and could do so again when training camp begins next month.
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s decision not to participate in team activities during OTAs and minicamp opened the door for other members of the secondary to get increased playing time.
The biggest beneficiary so far has been Damontae Kazee, a five-year veteran who remained unsigned until the Steelers gave him a one-year contract after the conclusion of the NFL Draft.
Kazee, 29, took Fitzpatrick’s spot in the secondary and worked on the starting unit with strong safety Terrell Edmunds.
“He came from a different team, so he got those extra reps, and he got a chance to go out there and feel the communication, he had a chance to go out and make plays,” Edmunds said. “He did a good job.”
When the Steelers signed Kazee on May 3, it was presumed he would compete with Edmunds at strong safety. After all, the Steelers have Fitzpatrick, a two-time first-team All-Pro, playing free safety. But with Fitzpatrick in line for a contract extension before the start of the season, perhaps the Steelers anticipated he would follow T.J. Watt’s approach and limit his offseason practice participation until a new deal is signed.
That made Kazee, who spent last season with the Dallas Cowboys after four seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, a valuable insurance policy to have on the roster.
“He’s a guy that’s got a bunch of experience, starter experience, and he’s in a competitive opportunity,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “Competition makes us all better. We value his experience, his expertise and his talents and look forward to finding a way to divvy up the labor.”
Kazee has played both safety spots in the NFL, and defensive backs coach Grady Brown believes Kazee can fill either role in the Steelers secondary.
“We’re kind of cross-training guys right now, playing both sides, playing down, playing back,” Brown said at minicamp. “He’s been a great addition for us.”
As a former cornerback at San Diego State, the 5-foot-11, 174-pound Kazee also can play the nickel. He was a two-time Mountain West conference defensive player of the year before the Falcons took him in the fifth round of the 2017 draft.
Kazee started 34 of 52 games in his four years in Atlanta and he led the NFL with seven interceptions in his second season. Last year, in Dallas, he started 15 of 17 games but made headlines for an incident that transpired off the football field.
In October, during Dallas’ bye week, Kazee was arrested at 3 a.m. for driving while intoxicated. He was pulled over for a traffic violation, then failed a field sobriety test. Kazee said he was celebrating with teammates Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott following the team’s rookie dinner.
Kazee knew he would face consequences in the offseason after his deal with Dallas expired. He cites the arrest as the reason he remained unsigned until May and could command just a one-year deal worth $1,187,500.
“I knew what I signed with would be lower than what I expected,” Kazee said. “I had to own up to it. It was my mistake. I made the mistake. I can’t do anything about it now. I can’t dwell on it. It was my fault, and I’ve got to move on.”
Kazee isn’t sure which scout or coach lobbied for the Steelers to sign him. His only conversation in free agency was with newly promoted defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.
“I’m blessed that it happened,” Kazee said. “It makes me want to push harder. They took a chance. I’m off the couch, and I’m here, so I’m happy.”
By signing with the Steelers after offseason conditioning already had begun, Kazee had to play catch up with other members of the secondary more familiar with Austin and the defense he inherited from Keith Butler.
“My style doesn’t change,” Kazee said. “I have to learn a new defense, but my style doesn’t change. I go full speed every play. You can’t teach that. … Even if I don’t start, you’re going to see me bust my butt every day. That won’t change. If you don’t see me start on defense, you’re going to see me start on special teams, for sure.”
Fitzpatrick’s lack of practice time also paved the way for Karl Joseph, Miles Killebrew and second-year defensive back Tre Norwood to get increased snaps during OTAs and minicamp.
“As the defensive backs coach, my concern is whoever shows up and is ready to work. That is who I work with every day,” Brown said. “I try to maximize the time that I have with the guys that are showing up to work.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .