Despite a lack of significant playing time at the safety position during his first two seasons, third-year safety Shamarko Thomas is expected to slide into the starting lineup for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2015 to take the spot vacated by Troy Polamalu.
Drafted in the fourth round during the 2013 draft after the Steelers swapped their 2014 third-round pick to get him, Thomas played intermittently in the slot on defense as a rookie until an ankle injury set him back toward the end of the year.
Heading into his second season, defensive backs coach Carnell Lake said that the team wanted to keep him at safety, rather than move him around, so that he could fully commit himself to taking over that role.
But when he had the chance to get on the field due to an injury suffered by Polamalu, Thomas also suffered a hamstring injury on special teams, and then another, which caused him to miss a total of five games. He was nearly entirely excluded from defensive football last season.
Coupled with that lack of experience and a perception for a pattern of injuries, there are many who have expressed reasonable concerns about Thomas’ ability to take over a starting job. Not that that means much to him.
Everybody has questions about me, my health, my ability. But at the end of the day their opinion doesn’t matter. It’s what I do on the field that matters. I know what I’m capable of. I know what I’ve put toward this position. There’s no anxiety, no anxiousness; it’s just straight focus, focus on my path and just working hard every day.
It’s not often that the Steelers take a player with limited experience on defense and put him into the starting lineup, even with a number of years under his belt. If you look at, for example, the trajectory of Lawrence Timmons or Cameron Heyward, former first-round draft picks, they spent a lot of time as rotational players before making the move.
And they came into the lineup not because a player retired, but because they outperformed their predecessors. Of course, neither of their predecessors was a future Hall of Famer such as Polamalu, either.
The organization appears to be comfortable with the idea of Thomas succeeding Polamalu, and they certainly would have a greater understanding of where he is in terms of his ability and his knowledge of the defense, so there should be a bit of relief in their comfort in that regard.
After all, Thomas has been Polamalu’s protégé, not just as a starting safety in the NFL, but also as a person in general. As he told Mike Prisuta about his training trip to Polamalu’s home last offseason, “it wasn’t about lifting the weights”; “it was learning how to be a man”, he said.
Thomas added that he still talks to Polamalu, even though he is no longer on the team, calling him a great mentor, going so far as to refer to him as a sort of big brother figure in his life. Now that big brother is off on his own now, however, it’s time for little brother to step out of his shadow.