After the Pittsburgh Steelers signed safety Mike Mitchell at the start of the free agent signing period this offseason, the popular belief among the fan base was that the team wouldn’t be addressing the position during the 2014 NFL Draft. However, judging by the players that have already been brought in for pre draft visits, it appears as though the Steelers aren’t opposed to drafting another safety this year.
So far, safeties Calvin Pryor, Deone Bucannon and Brock Vereen have all made visits to Pittsburgh, and according to a Thursday report, North Alabama safety Nick Williams appears to be scheduled for a visit or private workout as well. Being as teams are only allowed to bring in 30 out of area prospects for pre draft visits, this certainly isn’t a smoke screen.
Last year during the draft, the Steelers traded a third-round pick in this year’s draft in order to move up in the fourth-round to select Shamarko Thomas. At that time, it looked like the Syracuse product would be the one to succeed Troy Polamalu when his playing days are finally over, but right now, that doesn’t look as guaranteed as it did nearly a year ago.
While Thomas was able to log nearly 200 snaps worth of playing time in 2013 on defense for the Steelers prior to suffering an ankle injury in Week 10, nearly all of those snaps came with him playing as a slot defender in nickel, dime, or quarters sub packages. In fact, I think he only played three snaps as a true safety last season.
So, do the Steelers only view Thomas as a slot defender moving forward? It’s very possible. After he was drafted, Steelers defensive backs coach CarnellLake talked about his versatility.
“Not only can he play safety, but he can also get up there and play man-to-man on the slot receiver,” Lake said of Thomas last April. “He has played nickel, and he has played corner at times. He is a very versatile defensive back. I think he is not only going to do well for our secondary, but I think he is going to do well for the special teams as well.”
However, when pressed further about what position Thomas best fit was for the Steelers, Lake said he viewed him as a safety.
“I see him playing safety,” said Lake. “The great thing about this young man is if you were in a pinch and you didn’t want to put the nickel package out there, and you wanted him to play man-to-man on the slot, he could do it. He has done it in big games already against some of the receivers that have been drafted in the first two rounds, and he shut them down. That is the kind of safety I like. That is the kind of safety that the Steelers are looking for. Not only will he cover well, but he will hit you and hit you hard.”
The biggest knock on Thomas has been his size, as he measured in at just under 5’9″ prior to being drafted. That size was exploited last season in several games as the young safety allowed 14 catches for 127 yards and a touchdown in the 16 times he was targeted.
The most curious thing about Thomas last year was that he never saw the field on defense after finally returning from his injury as veteran Will Allen took his job and the then-rookie never won it back. He never played another snap on defense after getting injured.
We’ll wait and see how the draft ultimately plays out, but if the Steelers wind up drafting a bigger strong safety type in the first five rounds next month, you really have to wonder if Thomas’ career with the Steelers will be limited to him playing a slot defender role in sub packages along with contributing on special teams.