In a sense, Pittsburgh Steelers safety Shamarko Thomas can be said to be the forgotten man of the 2014 rookie draft class.
Not that he’s a rookie, of course. The Steelers drafted him in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft, but they traded away their 2014 third-round pick to get there.
Unlike the incoming class, however, Thomas already has a jump start on learning the defense, having already spent more than a year digesting all of its nuances while gaining valuable on-field experience to the tune of nearly 200 snaps.
And that year of apprenticeship is expected to pay dividends as the versatile second-year defensive back looks to take on a bigger role this season:
I have progressed a lot. I just know the whole defense now. Last year I was all over the place, just wanting to know my role. This year I am just settled in and comfortable and just playing.
It’s like college, your freshman year you don’t know the defense and the next year you settle in and fly around and make plays. That’s what I am doing now. I don’t have to think and second guess myself. I just fly around and make plays.
Thomas did some of that last season, and was as times seeing significant snaps during the middle part of the season. He played 50 of 65 defensive snaps against the Baltimore Ravens, registering seven tackles in the process. Things started to go south, however, when they stuck him on Rob Gronkowski against the New England Patriots.
Thomas could not contend with the All-Pro tight end’s massive size and athleticism, and was clearly overmatched. In the next game, he sustained an ankle injury, and never regained his position in the sub-package rotation because of valuable practice time being missed, which is vital for a rookie.
It was veteran safety Will Allen who became the dime back from there on out, and he played well. Does Thomas figure to have a chance to win back that job this year? “I don’t know”, he said. “That is up to the coaches. I am going to work my butt off and come to camp ready. What happens, happens”.
He knows that he needs to make himself heard this season, not just to get noticed, but to improve his communication on the field. “I am a quiet person”, he said. “I need to communicate and be consistent. That is my biggest thing. I talk to Troy every day and try to be consistent in everything I do”.
Nor does he be any means assume that he’s mastered the playbook in just a bit over a year’s time since he was first drafted.
An intricate understanding of the defense is especially crucial for a player such as Thomas, whose role by nature requires versatility, as he can be asked to fulfill a number of different roles within the secondary on any given play. Yet still, he feels that he has managed to reach a level of comfort in his knowledge of the defense:
“I was playing nickel, safety, and I was in packages and all over the place. The big thing Troy told me was to learn the whole defense, so it was a great development last year learning the whole defense and now I am here comfortable because I know where everybody is and where I am supposed to be and where to make plays”.
Thomas’ long-term role in this defense is unclear. I don’t know that it would necessarily be looked at as a disappointment if he does not become the heir apparent to Troy Polamalu at strong safety, for example.
But in the present, his versatility is a valuable commodity for the defense in 2014, and he appears ready for his role both physically and mentality, wherever and whenever that might be.