As far as their pool of upcoming unrestricted free agents is concerned, the Steelers could say goodbye to two of their top four players at the safety positions this spring in the forms of Ryan Clark and Will Allen.
Starting free safety Ryan Clark is set to turn 35, his current contract is set to expire in March and his days as a Steeler are likely numbered. Last fall, Clark looked particularly slow in pass-coverage, took poor angles in many instances and his tackling was extremely sloppy. I definitely have a hard time believing that the team will offer the veteran a new contract unless he takes a significant pay-cut.
Although Will Allen proved to be a valuable mid-season signing for the Steelers, one has to wonder if the franchise will bring the soon to be 32-year-old safety and special teams contributor back for depth purposes. Moreover, the cap-strapped franchise could elect to let Allen test the open market if a more lucrative deal is out there for him. Remember, the Steelers let the veteran test the market last spring and he signed with the Cowboys.
In addition to the statuses of Clark and Allen, uncertainty presently surrounds the long-term futures of the other three players on Pittsburgh’s depth chart at the safety positions.
To his credit, Troy Polamalu did play at a Pro Bowl-level at times in 2013, and he did a fantastic job when it came to forcing turnovers as well. Yet one has to wonder whether or not the Steelers would want to pay the veteran’s base salary of $8.25 million next fall. Although the 33-year-old is much more likely to stay than Clark, he has missed 22 games the last five years and is entering the twilight of his career as well.
Behind Polamalu and Clark, the Steelers do have two promising youngsters in the forms of Shamarko Thomas and Robert Golden. However, their experience is limited (Thomas: second year; Golden: third year) and both have only been utilized in subpackages and on special teams during their short careers.
From their limited work, I am nevertheless confident and optimistic that Thomas will emerge as a long-term starter and the versatile Golden can be utilized as a safety and cornerback in subpackages. However, depth could be a major concern for Pittsburgh at the safety positions in the near future if the older personnel is lost or continues to decline.
Many have speculated that the Pittsburgh Steelers could even try to target a safety with their first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.
HaHa Clinton-Dix (6’1″ 208 lbs.) of Alabama and Calvin Pryor (6’2″ 208 lbs.) of Louisville seem to be the consensus choices for those who believe that the Steelers will go in the safety direction in the first round. Both players have terrific range and size, and both would compliment more in-the-box strong safeties like Thomas and Polamalu with their play in the back-end of the secondary.
Granted, when it comes to the Steelers and their 2014 NFL Draft needs, I would definitely put safety behind positional units like cornerback, wide receiver, tight end and nose tackle. Although I would rather see the Steelers put off selecting a safety until the third day of the draft, there are some versatile prospects who could be available for them to take at that juncture.
As far as versatility and under-the-radar prospects are concerned, the Steelers might find some with later round guys like Marqueston Huff of Wyoming, Tre Boston of North Carolina and Nat Berhe of San Diego State.
Boston and Huff could be intriguing prospects for Pittsburgh’s brass to take a look at because of their experience as conerbacks and free safeties at the college level.
Huff (5’11” 198 lbs.) was a two-year starter at cornerback before he transitioned to safety last season for the Cowboys. Not only did he rack up 127 tackles at his new position, Huff also picked off two passes and has definitely created a buzz for himself at the Senior Bowl. Due to Huff’s toughness and versatility, he could be a very coveted selection if he falls into the third day of the draft.
Like Huff, Boston switched from cornerback to safety at the collegiate level. As a senior, Boston not only led the Tar Heels in tackles (94), he also led his team in interceptions (five) and passes defensed (13). Boston has the size (6′ 198 lbs.) Pittsburgh covets in their cornerbacks, and his experience at the position could make him an immediate sub-package contributor.
Like Huff, Berhe (5’10” 200 lbs.) might not possess the type of size which teams look for in safeties. To his credit, the former Aztec more than makes up for his frame with his tenacity and versatility. After spending the early stages of his career as a strong safety (Warrior position in SDSU’s 3-3-5 alignment), Berhe has been a rock as the team’s Aztec the last two years and was the leading tackler during the 2012 and 2013 campaigns.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, the Aztec position is similar to the Lobo position Brian Urlacher played in Rocky Long’s defense when SDSU’s current head coach held the same spot at New Mexico. A jack-of-all-trades who can move between the levels of the defense, a player with Berhe’s skill-set might be at home in Pittsburgh’s defensive scheme.
At least to me, the Steelers should be in the market for a safety during the upcoming offseason. Allen and Clark could be gone, and Polamalu’s career-clock is ticking as well.
I for one would like to see the Steelers target one of the later-round prospects who could add some versatility to the secondary. Plus, their presence would also put some heat on Thomas and Golden to step up their games during their second and third years too.
Although I disagree with the notion that the team needs to select one with their first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, it will nevertheless be a positional unit which requires a facelift sooner as opposed to later.
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