Steelers Offseason Priorities – Putting Safety First

By Matthew Marczi

The Pittsburgh Steelers have their work cut out for them coming off consecutive non-winning seasons. It takes elbow grease to get from 8-8 to a contender, as everybody knows, of course, but this offseason, the issue is more complicated than simply improving, due to some uncommon circumstances.

One of the top priorities facing the organization is an issue that the front office has not had to deal with for several years now, which is finding a new starting safety.

Now, we can’t of course completely rule out the possibility of free safety Ryan Clark returning to the team for one or two more seasons. After all, the last time he hit free agency, he nearly signed with the Miami Dolphins before having a change of heart and calling up Pittsburgh’s front office one more time to work something out.

As it stands right now, however, I believe we have to consider this scenario somewhat unlikely, given his increasing age, declining performance, and seemingly disproportionate salary demands relative to the aforementioned variables.

It’s not long ago at all that Clark was a Pro Bowl or Pro Bowl-caliber starting safety. A parallel observation could be made for Brett Keisel along the defensive line. But both players, who just so happen to be the oldest players on the team, are impending free agents that have seen their performance on the decline.

In Keisel’s situation, there are viable alternatives. There is already Ziggy Hood, who has started 46 games for the Steelers, and there’s Al Woods, who also has some starting experience. They are both also free agents, but are more easily, and likely, re-signed. Then there are young assets such as Brian Arnfelt and Nick Williams. Steve McLendon is also more than capable of starting at defensive end.

At safety, perhaps the best alternative currently would be to re-sign the soon-to-be-32-year-old Will Allen, who started seven games at strong safety in place of Troy Polamalu in 2012 and became a key cog in the Steelers’ quarters package last season as a third safety.

He already has that starting experience, but given his age and talent level, he would clearly be just a one- or two-year stopgap. That much could hardly be denied.

But might that be all they need? Could either Robert Golden or Shamarko Thomas emerge into starting material over the next season or so? Might the Steelers draft a safety early in this draft, such as HaHa Clinton-Dix?

But even if they do, they will still be looking for another safety, as the soon-to-be-33-year-old Polamalu will certainly be moving on to his life’s work as early as 2015. So the team’s immediate plans for the future of the safety position must account for the complete overhaul of the starting lineup within, likely, two seasons.

Should they do what they’ve done in recent years at wide receiver, outside linebacker, offensive line, and cornerback, by doubling up on the picks in the draft? Might they be at a point where that’s necessary?

Is there another Ryan Clark out there, a low-key, unheralded free agent that can command the sidecar next to Polamalu for half a dozen years or so? Is that the route the Steelers should be exploring right now?

As for where we are now, in February 2014, the Steelers must begin the search for a starting free safety for this season. Could it be Clark or Allen? Perhaps Thomas, or even Golden? Could they seriously contemplate moving Ike Taylor to safety (or more realistically, William Gay)?

Dave Bryan talked about former Green Bay Packers safety Nick Collins and his attempt to return to the game this season. Perhaps Collins, or a player like Collins, will be the Steelers’ next Ryan Clark. But even if the next Ryan Clark is out there, it won’t be long until we need to find the next Troy Polamalu.

Previous Articles In This Series
Steelers Offseason Priorities – A Primer
Steelers Offseason Priorities – Finding An Offensive Line Coach
Steelers Offseason Priorities – What To Do With Woodley And Worilds
Steelers Offseason Priorities – Replenishing The WR Depth Chart
Steelers Offseason Priorities – Riding The The Defensive End Carousel
Steelers Offseason Priorities – Extending Ben Roethlisberger
Steelers Offseason Priorities – Talking To Ike Taylor

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • steeltown

    I think they’re hoping Shark Thomas will take over SS when Polamalu hangs em up. My guess is they’ll re-sign Will Allen for depth purposes, he provides experience at a low cost. Then of course they’ll draft Safety. I wrote on another article that this would be the year for Golden to step up, if he ever was going to so I guess we’ll see but he hasn’t shown much outside of special teams

    I don’t see Taylor moving to Safety and I don’t see Ryan Clark returning

  • Tullydew

    Stevie Brown is only 26 and tore his ACL in August for the Giants last season. He had a great year in 2012 as a FS w/ 8 int and 2 FF along w/ 76 tackles. Could be a steal in FA b/c he might come cheap since he is coming off ACL surgery.

  • westcoasteeler

    As long as we go defense in the first, and maybe second rounds. I have a feeling an offensive player will drop and we’ll get excited. Even as much as I like Benjamin.

  • cencalsteeler

    Boy, there are a lot of FA safeties out there. Donte Whitner is someone who sticks out. Taylor Mays? Regardless, I would like to see the brass be proactive in FA in regards to the safety position. Ben’s window is getting smaller and it would be nice to bolster that position immediately.

  • Craig Ressler

    What is intriguing to me is trying T. Garvin out at S and seeing if they could have their version of Kam Chancellor. What would it hurt? He was undrafted, if he doesn’t pan out there then no loss. If he does, than awesome. His first two years at WV he played “spur” safety (had a good season as a SO at the position) and was supposedly solid in coverage, and has nearly the same measurables as far as height, weight, combine drills, aggression and open-field tackling standpoint as Chancellor. Why not give it a try?

  • JohnB

    Since both our Safeties are up in age and it takes a year to learn the defense, we need to draft their replacements ASAP. Same goes for our replacement for Taylor. Enough effin around.

  • Craig Ressler

    Read T.J Ward and Jarius Byrd are FA. I know we never do anything like that in free agency, but I would love to have either one of those guys, haha!

  • steeltown

    Actually I really like that idea

  • SteelerFanInMD

    I don’t think Nick Collins is the answer. Coming off of a injury, he will probably be another Levi Brown.

  • Steve

    Levi didn’t even play a snap, “What you talkin about Willard”?

  • Reg Sayhitodabadguy Hunt

    Isn’t shamarko the answer for one of our safety positions and can’t he play at both would love him and troy on the field together

  • cencalsteeler

    Here’s a thought based on your post. If they resign, extend or restructure Troy that means more pine time for Shark. Free safety and Strong safety though different positions, share similarities. If they don’t pursue a fa safety, I’d be up for moving Shark to free for the time being. He will be groomed to be multipositional. He will get game time experience. He will share the huddle with Troy and communicate with him more than him sitting on the bench. When the time comes for him to take over for Troy, the transition should be much smoother. IMO, it seems all arrows point up with this scenario.

  • Brian K

    I think Martavious Bryant from Clemson would be a better pick than Benjamin. And he could be had at a later slot freeing up the top picks to bolster that D.

  • Chad H

    If we can get Jean-Baptitse or Desir in the 3rd for CB and Antone Exum CB/S (he played both) who will fall in this draft because of injuries to the 5th or 6th rd would help greatly. Gives us our CB and a FS for the future. I think both have huge upside.

  • Karim Belica

    Well look at it this way we could move shark to free safety, get Stevie brown in free agency for little cost, or my idea go after chicago’s free agent major wright. He has a lot of experiance and is still in his twenties. He might cost alittle more but he knows how to play both safety positions. So I could see wright, shark, and Troy taking turns on the field

  • Bill Sechrengost

    Let’s remember the depth in the draft this year at safety. There are quite a few good safeties available in the 2nd to 5th rounds that should help the Steelers. Calvin Pryor, Dion Bailey, Deon Bucannon, Ed Reynolds, Kenny Ladler, Terrance Brooks, and more. There is real quality here. They just have to make sure to get the best one(s) to fit into their system. They need to get it right this year in the draft.

  • Jollyrob68

    I’m a Garvin fan. The issue might be that he doesn’t play the run well. He’s great in coverage. I’d give him a shot plus draft a few cb/safety hybrid players. Tre Boston would be nice with the comp 3rd.

  • dgh57

    I’ve already brought this subject up so I’ll amend it here. The idea of
    moving Garvin to SS doesn’t have to be a starting role right off the bat
    as he could be used in the quarters package at Safety when 3 Safeties
    are used and you need size at the position. With more teams moving to 2 TE sets and tall WRs that’s the best way to counter those moves.

  • steeltown

    They have intentions of teaching him both positions im sure, technically three positions if you count nickel.. if he shows better than the others in training camp and preseason, he’ll most likely win that spot. We have to get our best players on the field.

  • James Kling

    Shamarko has the speed to play FS and even pinch hit at CB (ran 4.37, 40+” VJ). I wonder if he could transition to Clark’s spot, and then draft Deone Bucannon in R2 – the guy hits like a Mack truck and has a nose for the ball at the SS spot. Those two would be a nice, hard-hitting S tandem.

    Plus, I think Bucannon and Shark could switch places if Dick wanted to move them around. Be curious to see how Bucannon tests at the combine.


    I think we might see this combination if Troy plays for much less than his cap hit indicates right now…Idk if Thomas can play FS or not, but Troy might be better off playing FS.


    I think we might see this combination if Troy plays for much less than his cap hit indicates right now…Idk if Thomas can play FS or not, but Troy might be better off playing FS.

  • Matthew Stanko

    Malcolm Jenkins is a 2014 FA, an under the radar FS who has under performed in NO. I would target him as a cheaper FA signing that could really emerge given a change of scenery.

  • steeltown

    Drafting Bucannon would be nice, of course they could always wait and get a guy like Kenny Ladler in the 4th-5th Rd, he played both SS and FS in college. Either way I’d be happy

  • Craig Ressler

    I read on some of his draft profiles that he was strong in run support. That was in college and some of draft analysis guys thoughts but obviously he would have to prove he could at the NFL level. With that said I am not quite sure how he has been doing in that area in practices. Also have read many praise his open field tackling and hard-hitting style. He is an intriguing prospect. I like what he has to offer and I think there is definite upside there. Glad we picked him up.

  • Craig Ressler

    Yeah, it’s hard to say how much he would flourish if given the opportunity. I would like to see them experiment with him at safety though and seriously give him a legit shot and see what happens.

    Agreed, a bigger safety with legit cover skills would definitely help us covering a lot of these pass catching TEs.

  • Matt Manzo

    Thank you! I haven’t heard anyone mention Exum yet! I think Baptiste might be gone by our 3rd, but Keith McGill looks the same and got lots of praise in the all star games! I don’t know enough about Exums recovery to place him, I’ve seen him listed from 4-6. I’d love him in the 5th! I would like to us land a CB and S before 4, though.

  • Matt Manzo

    These are the things I think Butler would try but not Lebeau? I would love to see Garvin at safety!

  • Josh Knepshield

    There will never be another Troy Polamalu.

  • Craig Ressler

    Yeah, I hear ya. LeBeau doesn’t even like the thought of playing his top rookies, haha. My comment is wishful thinking more than anything.

  • Josh Knepshield

    Bucannon has NO coverage ability.

  • James Kling

    That’s why you play him at SS. He’s the hardest hitting S in this draft, and he did rack up 15 INTs at WSU. Showed decent enough cover skills in Senior Bowl practices that you could swap him over to FS just to mess with opposing QBs, but I’m not saying that would be his bread and butter.

  • Karim Belica

    Haha Clinton-Dix is projected to go in the late second round the steelers could get him in the middle.

  • Shawn Winbush

    Exum only listed that low because of injury.he was regarded as a rd 2 guy before that. I would love to get Exum and Colvin late. i think they would be steals.

  • Brian K

    If they play troy as a LB as they they did often this pastseason they will be on the field together quite a bit

  • Kysteeler

    I haven’t seen him out of Rd 1

  • Kysteeler

    Living in Louisville I’ve seen a lot of Pryor, he has Steeler written all over him.

  • dgh57

    I like the idea of having 2 hard hitting Safeties but I see a problem in that Troy might get a extension to help clear some cap space and us instead drafting a FS to replace Clark in the upcoming draft.


    Yeah lets move Ike Taylor to safety. What a disaster. William Gay will get run over, plus they need him at corner because Ike Taylor is washed up. If they keep Troy another year they might as well play Shark and Troy. No reason to bring in a safety so Thomas get sit the pine. Just cut Troy if you don’t think he can play FS.

  • Jazz

    That would be a terrible move by the F/O. If they need cap space, ask Troy to take a pay cut or move on. That Organization needs to go back to yesterday when they knew the time to say goodbye and move on. Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark, Troy? Time to say Goodnight.

  • Jazz

    I don’t think the F/O will be that active in FA, it’s not their style. However, I agree, I think the Steelers will look to bring in a Safety at the right price.

  • dgh57

    I’m not exactly crazy about signing him to a extension either (or that it will happen)but just saying that’s what MAY end up happening. If they do I would see it as a sign that they think he can play 2 more years(not just to free up money) which to me isn’t unreasonable. I think he could of had a fantastic year had he been able to play his normal position full time and the defense would of fared better instead of having to hop back and forth from SS to ILB and back again. How the draft turns out may also have a say in what happens also.

  • Jazz

    Play his normal position? But that is just my point, he no longer has the speed to play his normal position. Troy never was that great in (1 on 1) coverage to begin with. In his younger days, his instinct and footbal IQ contributed to his success. Don’t get me wrong, he was great! No doubt, one of the Top three safeties the Steelers ever had. But he no longer has the speed, Ike and Ryan Clark? They don’t have the speed, it’s a young mans game. And here is why I think it’s time to move on from LeBeau; LeBeau made a comment towards the end of the season last year, he stated that he really didn’t believe the Steelers needed youth in the secondary. Now, maybe he was just being kind to his players. But if he really feels that way, time to move on from his philosophy as well.

  • dgh57

    Yes, play at his normal position. He came out of USC running a 4.33 40 time! Granted being 33 years old he’s probably lost a step down to a 4.50 range but since when has that been a concern for a SS. You want your top end speed at FS. If you were talking about Clark’s(at FS) speed then there would be reason to be concerned. You also won’t see many Safeties SS or FS covering any receiver one on one because there job is to add support with double teams and leave the one on one stuff to the CBs. Troy Polamalu will always be know for his quickness, instincts, and making things happen on the field of play, and until those are seen as diminishing he will continue to play possibly up to 2 more years. By the way Kam Chancellor who started 16 games last year for the Seahawks at SS has a 4.62 40 time.

  • alex

    definitly the position is a priority, but with a fair extension for Troy, Shark stepping up, and Allen for another year, i think with a good draft pick, this position can have a nice transition in the next 3 years…

    its CB that will kill us cause everybodys gonna pick on Ike…he make like a challenge, but we are not gonna like the results…