It is no secret that 2014 free agent signee Cam Thomas struggled mightily last year with the Pittsburgh Steelers, eventually losing his starting job and considerable playing time as the season went on. What might be a surprise however, is that Thomas’ spot among the 53-man roster is far from a certainty as training camp fast approaches.
Thomas’ underwhelming performances last season stemmed from a multitude of mechanical and technique issues, the most notable of which was consistently playing too high and allowing blockers to control his frame at the point of attack. Thomas isn’t the type of athlete that will typically be effective on passing downs, so Pittsburgh hoped he’d aid the development of a young defensive line as a consistent run stopper. Instead, Thomas ended up on the ground more than he did in the backfield, a plight which rippled over the entire Steelers defense early in the season.
Physical conditioning was an issue for Thomas in college, as he was part of a steady rotation at North Carolina, where the coaches desired to keep him fresh for early down work against the run. The big defensive lineman’s size and raw tools made him an intriguing fifth-round pick by the San Diego Chargers in 2010, but since then he has been a mostly underwhelming presence at both of his NFL stops.
Thus we come to the crossroads in Thomas’ NFL career that is this offseason, as the Steelers will likely carry just 6 defensive linemen on their final 53-man roster, as they did all of last season. Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon, and Stephon Tuitt are all but set in stone as Pittsburgh’s starters, while Daniel McCullers will likely see an increase in playing time as well. With those four all-but locks to make the team, that leaves two spots up for grabs between Thomas, Clifton Geathers, rookie L.T. Walton, and Ethan Hemer, among others.
Walton’s promise is undoubtedly too intriguing for Pittsburgh to part ways with him regardless of his struggles, but he may be headed for the practice squad as a raw player with a strong work ethic who needs time to develop. Early reports on Geathers are positive, as the hulking 6’7, 325-pound lineman has apparently trimmed down and looked much more explosive on the field during OTAs. The five-year veteran has bounced around to eight NFL teams during his time in the league, but he may have finally found a good fit in Pittsburgh. Hemer showed flashes last year as an undrafted free agent in Pittsburgh, but failed to make the final roster, instead landing on the practice squad.
Thomas may be more accomplished than his competitors, but it doesn’t mean the Steelers coaching staff will decide he’s currently more valuable to the team. Unless Thomas’ work ethic and intensity ramp up this offseason, I could easily see him being passed up by Walton and Hemer, as Geathers already may have a lead on all four players. Add to that competition the glut at outside linebacker that could spill over into the defensive line in the form of Anthony Chickillo, and you have a pretty crowded position along Pittsburgh’s defensive front.
Chickillo is the wild card of the Steelers draft picks, as the sixth-rounder’s minimal collegiate production and poor usage kept him off many team’s radars heading into the draft. Chickillo doesn’t show much skill on tape, but plays hard and is very physical snap-to-snap. He’s currently too light to play many reps as a five technique, but at 6-3, 270 pounds, he may be closer than many are giving him credit for.
I would love to see Chickillo and Walton show out at camp, but doing so could mean the end for Thomas, particularly given the Steelers recent propensity to go with upside along the defensive front in Tuitt and McCullers. The fact that McLendon and McCullers will undoubtedly handle the nose tackle snaps for the Steelers doesn’t help Thomas either, as his versatility is one of his most valuable traits. As it stands, Thomas is more likely to see time at defensive end in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 front, a position he really doesn’t have the athleticism or movement skills to play.
Any way you look at it, Thomas will have his work cut out for him to prove his value both on the field and as a leader in the locker room. Failure to do so could result in his time in Pittsburgh coming to an abrupt end this summer.