Aside from the time that he missed during training camp after being sidelined with a shoulder injury following a tackle in practice, Pittsburgh Steelers safety Shamarko Thomas spent the entire offseason running with the first-team defense.
And so far, that is where he has been yet again, running with the first-team defense, only this time it is because starting free safety Mike Mitchell has been held out of all off spring drills as a precaution after undergoing surgery on a shoulder injury that had bothered him during the season and caused him to miss a few snaps here and there.
Thomas is lining up across from Robert Golden, who figures to enter the regular season as the team’s starting strong safety, the role that the former was to have had last year until the coaching staff determined that they weren’t comfortable with him there at the time. He is now running in Mitchell’s free safety spot until the veteran returns.
Coincidentally, it was Golden who ran ahead of Thomas during the 2014 training camp when Mitchell had first come to the team, suffering a groin injury that caused him to start on the Physically Unable to Perform list, and which also required surgery after the season.
The two young safeties have been flipping back and forth in the pecking order for the past four years. Thomas got some work in sub-packages as a rookie, but then Golden seemed to be the more trusted of the two reserves in 2014. Thomas then surpassed him for the starting strong safety job, only to falter and find himself behind Golden once again.
This spring opportunity to run with the first-team defense has no doubt been invaluable to the fourth-year safety as he hopes to salvage any opportunity to hold a future role in the league as a defensive player, even if that comes outside of Pittsburgh: he will be a free agent after this season.
Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake told reporters a few days ago that he saw improvement from him “from the neck up”, saying that “he’s more comfortable after another year under his belt and learning the system”.
It’s worth remembering that that ‘system’ saw some tweaks and adaptations last season as the defense shifted from Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator to Keith Butler, and head coach Mike Tomlin also had a hand in helping to expand certain coverage packages.
The defense ran a lot of Cover 2 during training camp and in the preseason, and that is an area in which Thomas seemed to have his most prominent struggles, so one wonders if that changeover from one regime to the next, as similar as it might be, had a hand to play in his struggles to adjust to a starting role then.
With Mitchell and Golden ahead of him, however, and Sean Davis approaching from the year—he has been given some snaps in the nickel defense in the slot—it doesn’t seem likely that Thomas will be able to carve out a role in the defense any time soon barring injuries, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt the team for him to try, and to become a player that they could trust to play if necessary.