The signing of a starting-caliber free safety in free agency is not terribly surprising for the Pittsburgh Steelers, with Ryan Clark widely anticipated to find his time with the organization over.
It immediately reshapes the Steelers’ draft board, with Troy Polamalu still under contract for three more seasons and the newly acquired Mike Mitchell locked up for the next five seasons, assuming they play out their contracts.
A less obvious effect of the signing, however, is the impact that it has on the practical depth at the cornerback position, and, second-year safety Shamarko Thomas’ role in that for the 2014 season.
The Steelers are without question big fans of Thomas. They traded away their 2014 third-round draft pick in order to draft him last season in the fourth round. Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake spoke very highly of him after he was drafted.
Lakes comments were clearly about a player that he personally coveted, expressing the belief that he had first-round pedigree if not for his comparatively short stature—though, in reality, he is not much shorter than Polamalu.
But what separates Thomas from many safeties is that he also has strong coverage skills, which is something that he did fairly extensively in college, and was something that Lake focused on when talking about him.
His versatility is an extreme asset for the Steelers, who used him in the slot quite a bit in the early portions of the season when starting cornerback Cortez Allen suffered an ankle injury in the season opener.
When Allen came back, and Thomas came in as the dime back, he was used more in a safety role, but his 100+ overall snaps on defense last year will be of service to his ability to step in during this season.
With Mitchell locked up, the Steelers don’t have to worry about whether Thomas is ready to be a full-time start or not, let alone whether he can handle the free safety role. He is seen more as a strong safety who plays in the box, despite the fact that the roles in Pittsburgh and around the league are becoming increasingly incestuous.
Instead, he can focus on what he was doing last season, playing a sub-package role of around 10-20 snaps per game, depending on the opponent.
Because he can cover, he is essentially an extra cornerback, and now that he’s not required to start, the Steelers can actually use him as a cornerback. Behind Ike Taylor, William Gay, and Allen, there’s not much depth to speak of, so with just one injury, Thomas would already be the fifth defensive back.