You may have seen a few beat writers recently comment on three-year veteran safety Shamarko Thomas, who of course was projected to be in the starting lineup for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2015 before he lost that opportunity courtesy of some disappointing preseason performances that forced the team to rely upon Will Allen to start at safety instead.
There has been some talk suggesting that Thomas could be cut. But it doesn’t seem to make much sense to me, for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that they really don’t have many options at safety right now. In order for him to find his way off the roster, I would think that the team would have to retain at least one free agent safety, sign another, and perhaps draft one.
While Thomas may have failed to live up to the potential that the Steelers initially had for him when they drafted him in 2013 via a trade up in the fourth round, that overlooks the fact that, warts and all, he is among the team’s best, most important, and most valuable players on special teams.
Thomas worked his way into the top gunner spot on the punt coverage team last year after the Steelers took Antwon Blake out of that role to ease the burden on him and his injured hand as a newly appointed starter, who like Allen moved into that role between the last preseason game and the regular season opener.
Unfortunately for Thomas, the things that stick out to memory during the regular season are the penalties that he accrued. Over the course of the season, including the postseason, he drew three penalties for fair catch interference or interference with a catch opportunity.
On at least one occasion, Danny Smith, his special teams coach, went to bat to defend him, arguing that it should not have been a penalty. While the first penalty was certainly a gaffe, the one drawn in Seattle came as a result of the returner running up to shag a punt that was shorter than he estimated, and Thomas tried to avoid contact. The third attempt was simply a mistiming of the arrival of the ball on a punt for which no fair catch was called.
But his prior penalty history in spite of his extensive playing time on special teams is not long. He drew an unnecessary roughness penalty in 2014 and a holding penalty as a jammer in 2013. He also had a pass interference penalty on defense as a rookie.
To overlook his exceptional work as a gunner because of these penalties would be a mistake. One may think to point to the fact that he only recorded three tackles on punts, but that would be missing the point: he doesn’t have to tackle returners because he gets down the field and induces fair catches, routinely. I’ve noticed that the Steelers tended to punt with greater frequency to Thomas’ side of the field, perhaps for this reason.
Short of Mike Mitchell, the team doesn’t exactly have a robust back end of the secondary right now, and it’s not as though they have banished Thomas from ever playing on defense. Meanwhile, he is one of the primary reasons that the Steelers’ coverage units have been very good.
Cut him, why? Because he failed to live up to the lofty expectations of a fourth-round pick? It would require bringing in multiple players, I think, to knock him off the roster in the final year of his rookie contract.