The Optimist’s Take – Cam Thomas Sticks Around

While the Pittsburgh Steelers may have gained some tangible evidence of improvement, improving their win total by three games and hosting a playoff game as a division champion for the first time in four seasons, there is no doubt that the team is far from a finished product.

No team, of course, is a finished product in the offseason. Every team loses players to free agency and retirement, and replaces them through the same free agency process, as well as the draft.

With all of the change that occurs during the offseason, it’s often difficult to predict how a particular team might fare. They may wind up holding the Lombardi trophy or the first overall draft pick when all is said and done.

In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the optimistic side of the coin.

Question: Should the Steelers keep Cam Thomas on the roster for depth?

Technically speaking, the Steelers do have the entire six-man unit that they broke camp with along the defensive line under contract. That includes Thomas and his $2 million base salary for 2015, as well as Brett Keisel, who is scheduled to make $1.5 million in base salary, and is also recovering from an injury.

Neither player is expected in any way to be a starter, of course—the starting lineup seems quite set as we sit here on the eve of the Super Bowl—but devoting $3.5 million for two rotational defensive linemen seems like a tough sell, and the smart money has been on at least one of these two players being released, if not both.

But releasing both players of their contract would leave the team in a virtual depth crisis, after losing two of their core players from the previous season already, once again scrambling to rebuild the depth chart on the fly. It would seem to be prudent to keep at least one of them around—preferably at a reduced salary.

I know this is probably going to be the toughest sell I’ve made throughout these devil’s advocate columns, but I think it would make the most sense to carry Thomas at least through the length of the two-year contract that he signed. The fact that he ended up playing a much larger role than anticipated a year ago is not entirely his fault.

In 2015, to be certain, if Thomas is on the roster, he will not be a starter. He will be the rotational player that he was originally envisioned as, in the mold of Al Woods, and in that role, he should be able to be more effective.

Thomas’ ability to play both defensive end and nose tackle, as Woods was, is a valuable commodity, and the uncertainty of Daniel McCullers’ development and Steve McLendon’s injury history only adds to the import of being at least three-deep in the interior.

There is also some precedent for free agent linemen growing the more time they spend with John Mitchell. Woods comes to mind as the most recent example, as does Nick Eason from a few years ago.

Thomas no doubt has his warts, which are only exacerbated when he is left on the field for too long, but in a more limited role, with more discipline, I think he could be a more positive contributor in 2015.

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