As we are already amply aware, the Pittsburgh Steelers have an interesting situation going on at the back end of their defense this year thanks to a domino effect related to the retirement of likely future Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu.
Their two projected starters for the 2015 season, Mike Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas, could not fairly be described as established starters at this point in their careers, and they certainly don’t have any of them further down the depth chart.
Mitchell spent the early portions of his career with the Raiders before signing a one-year deal in Carolina, where he entered the starting lineup and produced a number of splash plays behind a dominant front seven.
That was enough to earn him a modest yet significant five-year contract from the Steelers, and he was a plug-and-play starter despite the understanding that projecting his future success was a gamble. His first season in Pittsburgh was widely considered to be underwhelming, regardless of the fact that he played the year with injured groins.
Thomas, of course, is far less experienced, having played only two snaps on defense during his second season and already having a bit of an injury history. He will clearly be getting the first shot at the starting job, however.
The Steelers ultimately retained Will Allen as the security blanket should either starter falter or get injured, because they clearly don’t have much faith in any of the players behind him. Which creates an interesting situation heading into 2016, even assuming close to the best-case scenario.
Way that both Mitchell and Thomas establish themselves as competent starters and a fine pairing with one another during the 2015 season. A team still needs more than two safeties in which they have confidence to play. That is why Allen is still on this roster.
But Allen will be 34 years old by the start of the 2016 season, and we certainly cannot project that he will still be a competent performer by then. It is possible, but it cannot be counted upon in terms of speculation.
Let’s say Allen is not in the picture in 2016. That means that the Steelers need to do something about the depth chart behind their starters. Currently, the top three candidates in terms of depth appear to be, in approximate order, Robert Golden, Ross Ventrone, and rookie draft pick Gerod Holliman.
Of the group, only Golden has a modicum of playing experience on defense, but he still has quite a ways to go in terms of establishing himself as a player the Steelers feel they can count upon to be the third safety and potential spot starter in case of injury.
Ventrone has up to this point been a career special teams player, in part limited by his height. Holliman, a rookie, enters the league with a horrendous reputation for tackling. The Steelers also have a number of first-year players at the position heading into camp. They have a lot of proposals for the future number three safety, but as of yet, no answers. Hopefully they can find one during this season.