Outside observers were nonplussed when the Pittsburgh Steelers lost a pair of defensive ends last offseason and replaced them with free agent Cam Thomas, even while assuming that he would serve in a rotational role. The apathy turned more opinionated when he entered the starting lineup, and the expectations for his release quickly mounted.
He would be an easy, obvious casualty early in the offseason, the thought was. He has a $2 million base salary in 2015 and he’s lost his starting job. He may not even make the roster on pure talent alone, irrespective of salary cap implications.
The scenario changed dramatically yesterday when the Steelers announced that they have placed defensive end Clifton Geathers on the Reserve/Injured List for an undisclosed reason. Bob Labriola alluded to a ‘condition’ as possibly being the reason for the move, and not an injury, per se.
Geathers was re-signed at the behest of defensive line coach John Mitchell. He dropped 50 pounds as advised by his position coach to improve his efficiency as a pass rusher and was awarded with consistent second-team reps throughout the offseason.
At the other defensive end spot was rookie sixth-round draft pick L.T. Walton, which may be regarded as a bit of a surprise, but Thomas has garnered fairly consistently positive news following OTAs and minicamp.
The veteran joined fellow teammates Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt during the down period leading up to training camp to work with former defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Ted Cotrell to prepare them for the upcoming season as they take on more one-gap responsibilities.
Since training camp has commenced, Thomas has shown that he has the ability to play. At this point, it seems obvious that he is one of the six most skilled linemen on the roster. He may have had a largely poor first season with the Steelers, but the level of vitriol that he has received in response would seem disproportionate to reality.
The truth is that Thomas should never have been tasked with entering the starting lineup in the first place. It was not the role that outside observers were anticipating in the first place, but he served as a stop-gap solution until Tuitt was ready to take over.
Now in a more comfortable reserve role, it would not surprise me to see Thomas settle down entering his second season in the system under Mitchell’s guidance, with Heyward the tone-setter for the unit.
He would not be the first veteran free agent defensive end to improve over time with the Steelers. I recall in particular Nick Eason, who became a much better player later on with the Steelers than in the beginning, enough to earn him a starting opportunity in Arizona. Travis Kirschke improved over time as he became more comfortable in the system as well.
While it’s wholly possible that Thomas continues to disappoint—and let’s be clear, he’s not a sure-fire roster lock just yet, either—I do think we would all be better served simply wiping the slate clean, starting anew, and taking him for what he shows himself to be during the preseason. His presence on the roster probably won’t single-handedly destroy a once-great franchise, anyway.