This is the final in a series examining the Steelers' roster on a position-by-position basis as we count down the days to the opening of the team's 2015 training camp at Saint Vincent College.
The job of replacing one of the most recognizable players in recent NFL history is going to fall to one of the most anonymous figures of this past Steelers offseason. And to be accurate, 'replace' isn't a fair word, because replacing what Troy Polamalu did on a football field and what he brought to the Steelers during his 12 seasons with the franchise is impossible. But also being accurate, the Steelers' hopes for the 2015 season are tied to how well Shamarko Thomas plays in place of the irreplaceable Polamalu.
"He was a father figure, a big brother and I even called him uncle," said Thomas about Polamalu. "I learned a lot from him, how to be a Godly man, a family man, everything you want to be in life. He gave me some tips and stuff."
One of the tips Polamalu could have provided Thomas was something he himself proved often during his playing career – that staying healthy, while of obvious importance, is a key to giving yourself the chance to develop into someone who can contribute, and then maybe have an impact. For Polamalu, injuries ruined two of his 12 NFL seasons – 2009 and 2012 – and an Achilles injury late in 2010 limited his effectiveness in a postseason run that ended for the Steelers with a loss in Super Bowl XLV.
Check out photos of Steelers safeties who are competing for a roster spot heading into the 2015 training camp.
But those injuries came well after Polamalu had established himself as an All-Pro. Thomas has had injuries over the first three of his NFL seasons keep him off the field except for special teams. That has served to retard Thomas' development as well as keep the Steelers in the dark concerning his capabilities. Going into a third NFL season as an unproven commodity is no way for a player to convince his team that he's someone to be counted upon, but it is where the Steelers are with Thomas.
They need him to produce in 2015 for the team to build upon its division title from a year ago, and he needs to produce this fall because he's at that stage of an NFL career where potential no longer provides protection for lack of production.
He has the physical tools, and Thomas completed the offseason program by putting himself on a path to succeed. He was diligent throughout, obsessive to some degree with his extra on-field work. He appeared to be properly focused and understanding of what challenges lay ahead. It sure seems as though Shamarko Thomas wants it badly, and usually when all of those elements come together for a player it results in a big season.
For that to happen, it would be nice for Thomas to stay on the field throughout the training camp period and then on into the preseason. The importance of on-field repetitions in pads with the first-team defense is going to be a significant factor for many young players on this defense, and Shamarko Thomas falls into that category.
The same point can be made about Mike Mitchell (pictured above). While nowhere near an unknown commodity, Mitchell had his in-pads transition to the Steelers defense slowed by a groin injury that resulted in him opening training camp last summer on the physically unable to perform list. With Polamalu still in the lineup but in decline physically, Mitchell spending the first two weeks of camp on PUP just served to gum up the plans. There is hope that Mitchell, with a year in a system likely to be a bit more cognizant of his individual on-field strengths, can be more like the player who had four interceptions and 3.5 sacks in 2013 while playing in Carolina. The Steelers are going to need that to morph from hope to reality over the course of this summer.
When the 2014 season opened, the Steelers had five safeties on their 53-man roster and when it ended there were six because Ross Ventrone had made himself indispensable on special teams. And special teams will be a significant factor again this year, because special teams is something Coach Mike Tomlin always has accommodated when it comes to allocating roster spots.
Will Allen might be a 33-year-old veteran of 11 NFL seasons on a roster that is skewing younger, but he remains a contributor on special teams as well as a legitimate option on defense. Robert Golden isn't as good on defense as Allen, but he has been more productive on special teams. Both should be difficult to un-seat this summer.
Gerod Holliman, the seventh-round pick from Louisville, is intriguing for the 14 interceptions he posted last season and scary for the matador tendencies he flashed when required to do any tackling.
Among the others competing for roster spots at safety are Isaiah Lewis, Ian Wild, and Jordan Dangerfield. Lewis and Wild are first-year pros who signed futures contracts, and Dangerfield is back for another attempt after spending some time on the practice squad in 2014. And again, don't forget about Ventrone. Tomlin won't.