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The safety was the day's highlight

Posted Apr 27, 2013

The pick of the quarterback will draw the most attention, both favorable and negative. Quarterbacks carry that kind of panache, especially at the NFL level, and especially when the team in question is the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But in the final analysis of what the Steelers accomplished on this third day of the 2013 NFL Draft in terms of the potential impact on their immediate future, the move the team made in the fourth round to add Shamarko Thomas, a safety from Syracuse, will be the defining one. The Steelers added six players over the final four rounds of this draft, and Thomas is the one among those half-dozen who right now looks to have the best chance to impact the team.

The six players added via the draft on Sunday were Thomas and Oklahoma QB Landry Jones on the fourth round; Illinois CB Terry Hawthorne on the fifth round; Oklahoma WR Justin Brown and Florida State ILB Vince Williams on the sixth round; and DE Nick Williams from Samford on the seventh round.

“We’re happy that the process went, we think, very well for us,” said General Manager Kevin Colbert. “We think we’ve added some good young players who can come in and hopefully make us a better team.”

As for what makes Thomas potentially the jewel of this third-day group, allow defensive backs coach Carnell Lake to explain.

“If you look at the USC game, when Syracuse played USC, I noticed that when I was watching film on Shamarko that he was in the nickel position covering Robert Woods, who was drafted in the second round. I said, ‘Well you play the nickel also.’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Well how come you were out wide playing Woods at the corner position. Did you play corner?’ He said. ‘No, it was still the nickel, but our coaching staff just wanted me to match up wherever he went.’

“And I thought that was really impressive. Why would you have your strong safety covering one of the better receivers in the draft man-to-man throughout the whole game? Woods had a very hard time getting off the jam with this kid. Not only that, but Shamarko went on and picked it one time when Woods ran down the seam. For me that was a game-changer. Sealed the deal in my opinion.”

Height was the reason why such a player was available when the fourth round of the draft began, and Lake even offered the opinion that if Thomas had been 5-foot-11 instead of 5-9, he would have been someone the Steelers might have had to consider picking in the first round.

To understand how much the Steelers liked Thomas, consider that the franchise had not traded away a pick in a future draft since 1973. Chuck Noll did it back then, and it was the first and last time he ever did. That trade brought veteran defensive tackle Tom Keating to the Steelers and sent the Raiders the team’s No. 3 pick in 1974. As the Steelers were drafting players in 1974 and were without that No. 3 pick, Noll had vowed, “Never again.”

The trade to be able to select Thomas involved sending a third-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft to the Cleveland Browns for their spot in the fourth round, which was the 111th overall, and four ahead of the Steelers’ own pick in that same fourth round.

Thomas joins a safety position that contains veteran starters Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark but not much else behind them. There will be an opportunity for playing time, provided Thomas can master the Steelers sometimes-complex defensive system.

“I don’t think this will be a problem with this young man,” said Lake. “The reason why I don’t think our scheme will be an issue for him, especially after a year under his belt, is because he’s played so many positions for Syracuse. He hasn’t been pigeonholed in one position. He has played multiple positions and what that tells me is the kid has some intelligence, because you can’t just switch a guy from safety in a deep path to safety in the box to nickel-back to corner and him not knowing what he’s doing. So I like that flexibility this kid has.”

With the safety having been added to a draft class that already included an outside pass rusher in Jarvis Jones, a power back in Le’Veon Bell, and a speed receiver in Markus Wheaton, the Steelers decided the value that quarterback Landry Jones represented at the 115th pick overall was too much to ignore.

“We thought there were some good, young quarterbacks in this group, and when you have a franchise quarterback like we do, you really don’t get a lot of opportunities to add another young quarterback into the mix,” said Colbert. “Hopefully, we’re never in a position where we’re picking a top quarterback high, but when you look at the Landry Joneses of the world, this kid was highly regarded as an underclassman. Of course, he decided to stay (at Oklahoma), and he was available to us in this fourth round and we just thought it was a great opportunity to add a good, young quarterback. It’s a critical position, and you better keep adding young folks to that spot.”

The rest of the day’s picking lacked the drama/excitement that had been generated by the selections of Thomas and Landry, but Colbert – not surprisingly – is intrigued by the possibilities each of those players bring.

Terry Hawthorne is a big, fast cornerback from Illinois who already has the ability to line up in press coverage. Justin Brown is a 6-2 wide receiver who played his final college season at Oklahoma after transferring from Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Vince Williams is a find-the-ball inside linebacker from Florida State who should make new special teams coordinator Danny Smith sleep better at night. And Nicholas Williams is raw in that he has played only five years of football in his life, but he is a 309-pound man who can run, and so defensive line coach John Mitchell will put in the time teaching him how to be an end in a 3-4.

“With the nine picks, we’re at 74 (on our roster), so we can add 16 free agents once the draft is over,” said Colbert. “We just counted this up and I didn’t even know what the breakdown was, but we have five defensive players and four offensive players. Again, we like these picks and we just hope they’re the right ones who help us win games.”

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