Pittsburgh Steelers fans have had all of the offseason, and even much of the regular season, to prepare for the inevitable, which was the parting of ways with safety Troy Polamalu. Sources warned for some time that the front office wanted him to retire, but would release him if necessary.
That did not prove to be necessary, as Polamalu revealed yesterday that he intends to retire, and he appears to have done so willingly, realizing that he was ready to move on to the next part of his life after spending the past 12 as a professional athlete.
The upshot of all this is that the Steelers have been preparing a remodeling of their secondary with a set of plans that already omitted Polamalu, not just from the starting lineup, but from the roster as a whole.
What exactly that new secondary will look like is not entirely clear, although we do have some pretty strong indications of how things might shape up, particularly as it pertains to the starting lineup.
We already know, of course, that Mike Mitchell will be entering his second season with the Steelers as a starting safety, although head coach Mike Tomlin has in recent weeks floated out the notion that he could move from free safety to strong safety, being put in more of a position to make plays.
The other starting safety figures to be third-year player Shamarko Thomas, whose second season was fragmented by a series of hamstring injuries that he suffered on special teams. He was limited to just a couple of snaps on defense last year as he was not available to play when Polamalu missed time due to injury.
Will Allen, on the other hand, was available, and he ended up starting the games that Polamalu missed, playing well particularly during his second stint as a starter last year.
I have previously speculated that the Steelers would like to re-sign Allen, but were delaying doing so in order to give Polamalu a wide berth. The public impression was that the Steelers were forcing Polamalu out, and being seen adding to the safety position would have contributed to that perception. It will be interesting to see if Allen is re-signed now that the future Hall of Famer has announced his retirement.
The most veteran safety on the roster behind Mitchell and Thomas, then, would be Robert Golden, a restricted free agent this year who has seen brief stints on defense but is a special teams captain otherwise.
One possibility is that the Steelers use the offseason to see if Golden could be that third safety, and, failing that, they would still have the ability to add Allen late in the process. They have also stockpiled safeties under futures contract, including Jordan Dangerfield, who spent time on the practice squad last season. Ross Ventrone is also not to be forgotten.
Adding a safety during the draft is a very real possibility, even if the Steelers are focusing hard on cornerbacks for obvious reasons. It seems clear that Thomas is the first man up, and it is his job to lose, but I will be watching to see how the position stacks up behind him going forward.