Earlier in the offseason, we took a position-by-position look at where the Pittsburgh Steelers stand with their roster before the free agency process both ravaged and replenished the talent pool.
The Steelers entered the process with 22 free agents. They re-signed six of them, while losing eight more to other teams, with eight remaining unsigned. They also added seven free agents from other teams.
With the roster picture now much clearer and draft needs much easier to determine, it’s time to revisit those positional draft charts to see which positions are areas of need come draft time.
The next position we’ll revisit will be the safety position. No position on the team got more attention from the Steelers than did safety this offseason, and for good reason.
With Ryan Clark on the decline, they opened their wallets for a new free safety. Troy Polamalu was in the last year of his contract, so they added two more. Will Allen proved his value as the quarters safety last season, so he’s back as well. This is the deepest the position has been in some time, at least on paper.
Troy Polamalu: Polamalu is a future Hall of Famer. That fact is virtually certain. He has 32 interceptions and 13 forced fumbles in his 130 starts, to go along with 12 sacks and about 100 passes defensed, but his impact on games goes far beyond that. At his best, he can sense the pulse of the game and make just the right play at the right time, seemingly at will.
Last season found Polamalu named to the Pro Bowl once again with five forced fumbles and two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown. He even played at linebacker depth a lot down the stretch. But he’s not getting any younger, and his ability to guess in coverage isn’t on an upward trend either. How soon is too soon to start grooming his successor? Is he already on the roster?
Mike Mitchell: Coming over from Carolina, Mike Mitchell is the rare Steelers free agent actually signed to start. He had a breakout season of sorts last year, and will play best as a deep safety with strong range and some blitzing potential. This should take some pressure off Polamalu and allow him more freedom. Mitchell does have some cleaning up to do when it comes to tackling, even if he’s capable of delivering the big hit.
Will Allen: Allen signed with the Cowboys only because they offered him a chance to start. They didn’t like what they saw and benched him after just a couple games before eventually releasing him. The Steelers welcomed him back with open arms and he finished the final third of the season playing a vital role as the sixth defensive back. Among his contributions were an interception, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovered and nearly returned for a score. He will provide valuable experienced depth this season.
Shamarko Thomas: What is the long-term future for Shamarko Thomas? Will he be the next strong safety after Polamalu retires? Thomas is short, but so is Polamalu. On the surface, they seem to share many qualities. Thomas had some success as a rookie when not being lined up one on one against All-Pro tight ends, but the Steelers expect a jump from him in year two, even if he’s not starting. He’ll likely play some dime this season, and maybe even some nickel, since he has some natural cover ability.
Robert Golden: While he’s developed into a strong special teams player, Robert Golden doesn’t seem to be getting any closer to getting significant playing time on defense. He played some early in the year due to injuries, but was back to special teams after that. It’s hard to know what type of player he is on defense without seeing him play.
Draft Prognosis: The Steelers would appear to be set at the position for the year. In fact, it would hardly seem possible to add another at the position, as they already have five. Golden isn’t going anywhere by virtue of his special teams play alone.
But if one of the top safeties should fall to the second round? Surely they would have to at least think about taking him. Allen would be the odd man out in that scenario. Polamalu is nearing the end of the road, and Thomas may ultimately be best as a sub-package player.
While it’s not a need this year, it could be in a year or two. That’s how the Steelers used to draft, but they don’t seem to be able to afford to lately with so many significant needs. The future at cornerback is approaching faster than it is at safety.