By Matthew Marczi
It has been a theme for many years that, aside from the occasional special teams contributions, rookies on the Pittsburgh Steelers, including even first-round draft picks, rarely contribute during their first season. That has been especially true over the years on defense, though less so on offense.
That pattern changed somewhat in 2013 due to a variety of circumstances, both foreseen and unforeseen, as many rookies—even undrafted players—got a good chunk of playing time on both sides of the ball. Therefore, there’s more to go on than usual when speaking about how their rookie seasons went.
Player: Shamarko Thomas
Draft Status: 4th round (111th overall)
The Steelers ended up saying goodbye to their two very experienced reserve safeties during the 2013 offseason, as Ryan Mundy found a new home with the New York Giants and Will Allen got a chance at a starting job with the Dallas Cowboys. Both of them had starting experience in Pittsburgh.
Coincidentally, the two ended up starting against each other in the season opener, and they both came down with an interception in the game.
It was their departure that led to the Steelers not only drafting the height-deprived Shamarko Thomas, but doing so with urgency, as they made the rare move of trading away a future third-round draft pick in order to acquire a fourth-round pick from the Cleveland Browns that was just four picks ahead of their own.
Therefore, it helps to think of Thomas as the Steelers’ third-round selection in 2014, only they get him with a one-year head start. And because of an injury to Cortez Allen in the season opener, the learning process hit the accelerator.
The key to Thomas’ early playing time was his ability to play the nickel cornerback role with competence, which is what he spent the first several weeks doing. He played 10 snaps in the second half of the season opener, showing well in coverage and making one tackle for a stop.
Over the next three weeks, he averaged between 25 and 30 snaps a game before reaching a season-high 50 snaps in the first game against the Baltimore Ravens. Thomas played very well in that game, recording seven tackles in what was certainly his best game of the season as an all-around player.
Then came the game against the New England Patriots two weeks later, in which he was completely mismatched against tight end Rob Gronkowski. That game was certainly the low point for Thomas, but that could apply to almost everybody on the defensive side of the ball short of one or two players.
Thomas’ season then came to an abrupt end as he twisted his ankle attempting to tackle Stevie Johnson the following week against the Buffalo Bills. Because the Steelers had reacquired Will Allen, Dick LeBeau chose to use Allen as the dime safety for the remainder of the season.
It would be remiss not to speak of Thomas’ performance on special teams, however, as he quickly proved to be a quality gunner on punt return coverage in particular. Though he missed four tackles, he also made 10 tackles, but he frequently forced returners to signal for a fair catch. Along with Antwon Blake, Robert Golden, and Curtis Brown, the Steelers have some quality coverage players for their special teams.