When the Pittsburgh Steelers first signed veteran free agent defensive lineman Cam Thomas last year, there was an initial uncertainty about what his role might ultimately be that season. While the Steelers had quality depth just the year before, the loss of Ziggy Hood and, at the time, Brett Keisel, meant that there was a hole not just in the depth chart, but in the starting lineup.
It was hoped. If not believed, that Thomas, who signed a two-year, $4 million contract, would be a one-for-one replacement for Al Woods, who signed elsewhere in free agency for a very similar deal. He was a reserve defensive end with position flexibility and the potential to spot start if necessary.
It was hoped that the Steelers would acquire a starter in free agency. Little did many realize that Thomas would be that starter, if only a placeholder until rookie second-round draft pick Stephon Tuitt was ready.
I was early in talking about Thomas last season as a potential placeholder starter last season, as there was no other clear option at the time. Now, after many have expected that he would have been a cap casualty several months ago, I present the very real possibility that he and his $2 million base salary remain on the roster.
Despite some spring reports that Thomas looked out of shape, he spent his down time with Cameron Heyward and Tuitt putting in work with professional trainers, working on their technique, particularly as it pertains to their pass rush.
Thomas has not been observed to be out of shape during training camp, and seems to be aware that his salary puts him in a particularly vulnerable position. He knows that his roster spot is not guaranteed, and the savings that could come from releasing him is a bit of a carrot at the end of a stick.
But our own staff have written positively about Thomas, particularly in recent days. A couple of practices ago, with Heyward and Steve McLendon sitting out, it was Thomas who leapfrogged Daniel McCullers at the nose tackle position to run with the first-team defensive line. He continue to take McLendon’s first-team reps yesterday
This is in spite of the fact that he had not been consistently running with the second-team line, either at defensive end or nose tackle, which does strike one as a bit odd. Perhaps it’s an indication that the coaching staff wants to get a better feel for him before they make a decision on him, but if he plays well, it doesn’t matter what the intention is.
The fact of the matter is that the Steelers have lost a lot of depth on the line over the past two years, and while they have plenty of linemen in camp, none of the depth players are really doing much to stick out.
That is great news for Thomas, who may this year see the role that he should have had all along, as a reserve with position flexibility. The Steelers have always preferred to have a third body capable of playing the nose, which means either carrying seven linemen, which they can’t afford to do this year, or a sixth lineman that can move around.
Thomas fits that criterion better than anybody else at the moment. It’s still early, but the battle for the two open spots on the line appears likely to come down to Thomas, Clifton Geathers, and rookie L.T. Walton, barring somebody else such as last year’s practice squad players stepping up.