As the Pittsburgh Steelers were bumbling and stumbling through their preseason contest against the Washington Redskins, yanking down pass rushers and throwing interceptions to men roughly two feet away1, there was undoubtedly a silver lining in the Black and Yellow’s black and blue. Rookie strong safety Shamarko Thomas was everywhere, harnessing his inner Samoan, leading the team in tackles and making big plays when needed.
On a second-half running play for the ‘Skins, Thomas knifed his way in to the Washington backfield and hit reserve running back Chris Thompson to force a fumble that Steelers cornerback Terry Hawthorne recovered. On the subsequent series, on a third-and-8, Thomas was in man-to-man coverage on Washington wide receiver Nick Williams. When Williams caught a short pass on a crossing route, Thomas made the tackle, holding the offense to a two-yard gain and a forced punt.
If Thomas’ name rings a bell, it is because he was the player who the Steelers selected as the heir apparent to Troy Polamalu. He is also the player who the Steelers selected with the pick acquired in their deal with the Cleveland Browns during the Browns’ third day wheeling and dealing. At the time of the draft, it was reported that the Steelers were very high on Thomas, a Syracuse product who—due his 5-foot-9-inch stature and history as a hybrid linebacker-safety—drew comparisons to former Colts safety Bob Sanders. Bob Sanders was a two-time Pro Bowler who won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award in 2007, proving to be an integral part in the Colts’ victory in Super Bowl XLI. He was nicknamed “The Hitman” because of his missile-like hits and highlight reel tackles; he was also called “The Eraser” by his former coach Tony Dungy as Sanders had the knack for “erasing” the mistakes of his teammates…
This is where I find myself attempting to curb the whole “Only in Cleveland” mantra—the one where the insanity and pessimism takes over and one game gets extrapolated into an entire career arc; the praise of John Gruden on a preseason edition of Monday Night Football becomes the opening sound bite for a Canton, Ohio montage in 2037.
The Browns don’t need a strong safety. The Browns, at the time and even in present day, undoubtedly have other glaring needs. Their free safety position is far from locked down, presently owned by undrafted free agent Tashaun Gipson. Last season, it was a former late-round selection in Eric Hagg who was the starter, released eight months later. Thomas, by all metrics and measurements, is not a free safety and may struggle in pass coverage if matched up with any player who is above the average height of an American male2, say, a 6-foot-5-inch Jordan Cameron. The Browns, in turn, have TJ Ward cemented as the team’s starting strong safety. Ward is a player who many feel could have a bounce-back (if not breakout) campaign in 2013. Given Thomas’ style of play and penchant for leaving his feet, it appears that he still has a long way to go before he’s at Ward’s level let alone that of Polamalu3.
The Browns received value for the Steelers trade. The Browns were not going to fill all of their holes this offseason. With the Steelers expecting to regress a bit in 2013, the pick received for the trade of the 111th-overall pick in 2013 could be prove to be a decent haul. Assuming that the Steelers do finish at the forecasted 8-8, the Browns could be looking at the 18th pick in the third round (80th overall), a 31-pick difference. You’re also taking a mid-round pick from a division rival while adding flexibility from a trading perspective next spring. Flexibility is good.
His name is Shamarko. This sounds entirely too much like Sharknado. Enough said.
Thomas doesn’t appear to care about NFL rules. For a team that can ill afford to have mental mistakes extend drives for the opposition, the Browns really can’t afford to have a guy who says he expects to be fined this season. “I’m gonna get some fines, I’m not gonna lie,” Thomas said, via Tom Robinson of the Virginian-Pilot. “That’s just how I play. It’s football.” Not to mention, there’s something to be said for a guy who decides to put a target on his back before his first snap as a professional.
It’s just one game. Thomas played well into the second half of Monday night’s preseason game, signaling that the opposition was not exactly of NFL starter quality. The plays he made which were discussed above were not against Alfred Morris or Leonard Hankerson. Robert Griffin III was not in at quarterback. Heck, Kirk Cousins wasn’t even in at this point. LJ Fort had six tackles against the Detroit Lions on Thursday night; Armonty Bryant recorded a sack. While both players may wind up having multi-year NFL careers, there isn’t a national pundit across the dial who thinks either player is bound to be enshrined. Let’s not get too carried away with this kid just yet. I mean he’s still a grey box. Again: It was just one game.
We could mention that Ward is a free agent in 2014 and stands to make just $600,000 this season which isn’t likely to sit well, but that wouldn’t exactly help matters when it comes to this whole narrative now would it? [↩]