For as much hang-wringing as there might be about the cornerback position right now for the Pittsburgh Steelers, I think that the one position most up in the air in the secondary right now is that of the strong safety, where the team continues to look for the replacement for Troy Polamalu.
Of course, the plan was for that to be Shamarko Thomas, who trained with Polamalu during the 2014 offseason leading up to the start of the future Hall of Famer’s final season with the team before he retired. The third-year safety spent all of the offseason—minus a brief training camp injury—all the way through the conclusion of the preseason before the coaching staff made the determination that he wasn’t ready to start.
So on they pushed, with 33-year-old journeyman Will Allen taking over for the spot last manned by Polamalu in his age 33 season, with the 12-year veteran starting 13 games, missing three starts only due to an ankle injury, and his age clearly showed, chiefly in his abundance of missed tackles.
There was a glimmer of hope when they turned to fourth-year former undrafted free agent Robert Golden to replace Allen in the starting lineup while he was injured. Golden had previously checked in during the Week One loss to the Patriots, during which he seemed to make lapses in communication.
But his play in the starting lineup drew largely favorable reviews, recording 17 tackles and a pass defensed in those three games. For the season, he recorded 40 tackles with four passes defensed and his first career interception, nearly coming up with another one a week later.
Of the three safeties who actually saw defensive time that could be vying for the starting strong safety spot next season, two are free agents, with Allen perhaps having his last hurrah as he turns 34. Golden is coming off a year in which he played under a restricted free agent tender and is now scheduled to hit the open market.
Thomas is the only one under contract that has ever been given any kind of serious consideration as a starter alongside Mike Mitchell, but can he possibly show himself to be capable after he, in the coaching staff’s estimation, fell on his face—metaphorically—in his audition as he once did literally during his 40-yard dash as the Combine?
The future of the strong safety position for the Steelers is up in the air right now, in its most unstable state since Polamalu first entered the lineup, and there is no immediately obvious indication as to which direction the organization will take to address it.
If they choose to draft a safety, then it’s unlikely he will come in as a day one starter, which would require yet another bridge to the next starter. Would they seriously consider letting Allen be that bridge again, even a year older? How will Golden’s market value determine his future? Could he be the bridge—or perhaps even be given a shot at being the answer?