*Photo Gallery: New Steelers DT *
At first glance, Cam Thomas looks like another Al Woods.
When Woods signed with the Tennessee Titans, those lamenting his departure pointed to the lost versatility he brought to the defensive line in 2013, because he was someone capable of playing both nose tackle and defensive end in a 3-4 alignment.
Thomas has that same versatility.
Unlike the Steelers' signing of free agent Mike Mitchell to be a starting free safety, the addition of Thomas is a move by the team to try to restore some depth along the defensive line. Cam Heyward and Steve McLendon deserve to be seen as starters, and Thomas will join the rest of the players there in a competition for a roster spot and then a role within the defense.
Thomas, 6-foot-4, 330 pounds, entered the NFL as a fifth-round pick from North Carolina in 2010, and going into the 2013 season he had worked his way into the starting lineup at nose tackle for the San Diego Chargers.
His climb into a starting spot took flight in 2011 when he played in all 16 games for the Chargers and led all of their defensive linemen with four sacks. During that season, he also finished second on that unit in tackles for loss with six, in quarterback hits with 10, and in pressures with nine. Thomas was tied for fourth on the unit with 26 tackles, and he followed up that season with one in 2012 in which he played in all 16 games with three starts and was third among the team's defensive linemen in tackles (30), pressures (six), and quarterback hits (nine).
Nicknamed "Baby Zilla," Thomas opened the 2013 season as the Chargers starting nose tackle, but after the Cincinnati Bengals rushed for 164 yards in a Week 13 game, he was benched and replaced by Sean Lassimore, who had been acquired by San Diego via a September trade with the Dallas Cowboys.
The addition of Thomas, who will play the 2014 season as a 27-year-old, via a reported two-year contract helps to fortify a position that absorbed the loss of two players – Ziggy Hood and Woods – during a 24-hour period earlier in the week. Those departures had left the Steelers thin along their defensive line, with only Cam Hayward and McLendon, along with Hebron Fangupo, Brian Arnfelt, and Nick Williams being the only players under contract.
After winning a training camp battle with Alameda Ta'amu to be the backup nose tackle, Fangupo was inactive for 10 of the 16 regular season games in 2013, and he did not record a tackle in the four games in which he did play.
Arnfelt signed last April as an undrafted rookie from Northwestern, and even though he was waived at the end of the preseason he had shown enough during training camp to earn a spot on the practice squad. He was activated from the practice squad in mid-December because of injuries, when he played in two games and did not record a tackle.
Williams, from Samford, was the team's seventh-round draft pick last April, but he spent the entire season on the injured reserve list after hurting his knee during the early portion of training camp.
Into the mix now is Cam Thomas, who was signed by the Steelers because they see him as a big guy who can be a space-eater along the line of scrimmage. He also has experience playing in a 3-4 defense, and has a bit of flexibility that could allow him to play both nose tackle and defensive end.
A big, space-eating guy whose forte is stopping the run, who has experience in a 3-4 defense and could contribute as both a nose tackle and as a defensive end.
That's a description of Cam Thomas, and of Al Woods.