When earlier this offseason Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell explicitly name-dropped defensive end Clifton Geathers as a player that he requested that the front office re-sign, it certainly made the ears perk up.
Geathers was a street free agent when the Steelers signed him with four weeks to go in the regular season, having been cut after signing a deal with the Redskins earlier that year, which was just one of a number of teams that he had played for in his fairly short career by that point.
He spent the five games in which he was on the roster on the inactive list, while the Steelers saw increased contributions—including five starts—from a pair of rookie linemen, which is highly uncommon for Mitchell.
It seemed then that Geathers wasn’t much more than an afterthought, even if head coach Mike Tomlin said after he was signed that he was a player that they looked at during the offseason, evidently before signing Cam Thomas.
After Geathers revealed yesterday that he took off about 50 pounds on Mitchell’s request, as he told Jim Wexell for Steel City Insider, the ears began to perk up just a bit more, with the notion that he has a real chance of sticking on the roster becoming more and more plausible.
Consequently, there appears to be a resurgence the campaign to get Thomas off the roster, nixing the second half of his two-year, $4 million contract that he signed last offseason, during which he started 12 games at left defensive end and nose tackle before being demoted as a role player.
But the truth is that Geathers alone wouldn’t knock him off the roster. Despite the fact that a $2 million base salary is a lot to pay for a reserve along the defensive line, that alone is not justification for releasing him when the bodies are needed.
It seems to me that Thomas’ fate is more directly tied to the growth of rookie L.T. Walton, during whose post-selection conference Mitchell talked about Geathers—while noticeably failing to mention Thomas at all.
The key to Thomas’ prolonged stay on the roster is certainly not his immense ability, but rather his position versatility. Mitchell loves to have that third body that is capable of manning the nose tackle position, which typically means that he needs at least one end body that can play nose.
Most recently, that has been Thomas, as evidenced by him starting games there. Before him, it was Al Woods. Before that, it was Steve McLendon and Chris Hoke. Walton has the frame to develop that versatility.
At 6’5” and around 320 pounds, with interior line experience during his college career, he has the height to play end with the bulk to play inside, which is how players such as Woods ended up in that role. Nobody else on the roster, other than Thomas, really seems capable of assuming that role, so the best way to make him expendable would be for Walton’s rapid development.