I know that the thought of it is a bit unsettling, but the “Polamalu & Clark Era” could very well be nearing its end in Pittsburgh.
Both safeties are not only getting older, but the veterans have also had their issues staying healthy over the last couple of seasons. Compounding those issues, Troy (2014) and Ryan (2013) also are nearing the ends of their respective contracts with the franchise as well.
If Polamalu and Clark are not in the franchise’s plans beyond this fall or next, then a “transition strategy” must be in place at the back-end of the Steelers’ defensive backfield. Although the veterans are entrenched as Pittsburgh’s starters at the moment, the competition for the backup spots behind them should be wide-open now that Ryan Mundy and Will Allen are gone.
With a “transition strategy” still murky and the depth chart not settled at the safety positions, one or more of the following players could step up big for the franchise during the next two seasons:
I was actually one of the few people who believed that the 2012 UDFA would stick and stay on the Steelers’ roster last year. In fact, the soon-to-be second-year free safety might be the player who will benefit most from the departures of Allen and Mundy. If all goes well for Golden, I believe that the former Arizona Wildcat has a chance to solidify a long-term spot on Pittsburgh’s roster this summer.
During his rookie campaign, Golden was used mostly on special teams until he was pressed into action against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 15. Although he struggled a bit in that game, there is still plenty to like about Golden and his potential as possible replacement for Clark at free safety.
While he is not physically imposing (5’11″ 202 lbs.) Robert has the ability to line up “in-the-box,” and can definitely step up to make tackles near the line of scrimmage. Due to the fact that he played both cornerback and safety at Arizona, Golden could develop into a valuable asset in the back-end of Pittsburgh’s secondary from a versatility standpoint as well.
If Golden wishes to earn the top backup role behind Clark this fall though, he will probably have to beat out a familiar face to earn the bulk of the second-team reps at free safety.
Undrafted out of UTEP back in 2010, Cromartie-Smith has been on and off of Pittsburgh’s practice squad and 53-man roster over said span. Overall, Da’Mon has played in only six games since the start of the 2011 regular season and has been exclusively used on special teams coverage units.
Now in his third season, the big bodied safety (6’2″ 210 lbs.) is essentially facing a “make or break” summer with the Steelers. Not only must he show that he can bring some stability to Pittsburgh’s shoddy special teams coverage units, but he will probably have to prove that he can step in at safety in a pinch and contribute on the defensive side of the ball.
Cromartie-Smith will not face competition for a backup job from just Golden though. In fact, both Golden and “DCS” will probably be fighting their hardest to keep a very talented rookie like Shamarko Thomas at bay.
While Golden and Cromartie-Smith have more professional experience than rookie Shamarko Thomas, the former Syracuse safety could surprise some people immediately. I for one thought that Thomas would be a perfect fit in Pittsburgh’s defense during the period leading up to the NFL Draft, and I guess that the Steelers thought that way too. In a post-draft interview, defensive backs coach Carnell Lake even said that “Shark” would have been a 1st round pick if he was an inch or two taller.
Although he possesses a smaller frame (5’9″ 217 lbs.), Thomas’ size does not limit him from being an “in-the-box” safety at the professional level. I liken Thomas to former Colts and Chargers safety Bob Sanders in that respect, and his physical play is downright fun to watch. Still, I hope that “Shark” is not as injury prone as the 2007 NFL Defensive MVP was.
Concerns over height and health aside, Thomas was a very productive and versatile player for the Orange during his collegiate career. A four-year starter with experience at linebacker and cornerback under his belt to boot, Thomas was at his best last season when he registered 85 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 3 forced fumbles and 2 interceptions. It also doesn’t hurt that Thomas has a 40.5″ vertical leap and is basically a heat-seeking missile waiting to strike in the secondary.
With the unproven Golden and Cromartie-Smith as his competition, the stage will be set for Thomas to contribute early and often if Polamalu or Clark are unable to play at times over the next couple of seasons. “Shark” has the versatility and toughness to be a dark-horse to contribute in sub-packages as early as his rookie season, and he could be in the mix to start by the time his second year gets underway if one of the veterans is no longer on the team.
It really is a shame to see that the careers of Pittsburgh’s veteran safeties could be ending soon. During their primes, one was arguably the best strong safety of his era and the other was a vicious hitting and underrated compliment to him.
Thankfully, Clark is still under contract for the upcoming season and Polamalu can probably play through the duration of his current deal if he stays relatively healthy (ends after 2014 season). Thus, even though Pittsburgh’s current crop of backups are inexperienced, there is still a window of time for them to develop if the veterans can “hold down the fort” for the time being.
In the NFL though, plans can change and inexperienced depth can be pressed into action at a moment’s notice due to injuries, poor play or personnel changes. If those things happen, then Pittsburgh’s backup safeties could potentially have plenty of chances over the next couple of years to make their presences felt.
Who knows though? Next year’s safety class appears to be pretty deep, so the Steelers might just target another talented player at the position if Golden and Cromartie-Smith fail to make splashes or show signs of improvement during the upcoming season. Regardless of what Pittsburgh’s 2014 draft strategy will be though, the fact is that the expiration date for the “Polamalu & Clark Era” could be approaching sooner than most of us think.
I just hope that the Steelers’ brass have a legitimate “transition strategy” in place at the safety positions sooner as opposed to later.
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