Polamalu enters training camp as Steelers' longest tenured player

| Tuesday, July 22, 2014, 9:20 p.m.

NFL training camps are something to be tolerated and not necessarily enjoyed by veteran players. Troy Polamalu is no exception.

What is different as Polamalu heads off to his 12th Steelers training camp Friday is that, for the first time, he is their most-tenured player.

But for how much longer?

“It's strange to be the oldest and most-experienced guy on the squad,” Polamalu said. “I never thought that would happen — Jerome Bettis was here, it seems, like yesterday. I looked at him as one of the greatest running backs to ever play the game, and he's old.

“I hoped one day I could get old and play, and here I am. I guess I am old, too.”

Advancing age — Polamalu turned 33 in April — always brings about questions regarding how much longer a career will last.

Team president Art Rooney II said the Steelers want Polamalu to retire without playing for another team, and they attempted to facilitate that by adding two years onto a contract due to expire after this season.

The deal trimmed Polamalu's base salary from a scheduled $8.25 million in 2014 to $1.5 million, with the $6.75 million difference converted into a signing bonus that will be spread over the three years.

However, no money is guaranteed after this season, and the Steelers could cut ties to Polamalu by absorbing a $4.5 million dead money charge after this season or a $2.25 million charge after 2015.

For the moment, there is no sign that the Steelers are weighing this. Polamalu made his eighth Pro Bowl last season and was the highest-rated player on their defense and No. 5 overall in the league by Pro Football Focus. He did so while often playing out of position at inside linebacker due to Larry Foote's season-ending injury in Week 1.

But while Polamalu played all 1,093 defensive snaps last season, he missed big chunks of the 2009 and 2012 seasons with injuries.

And for the first time since the Steelers traded up in the first round to draft him in 2003, he has an heir apparent: Shamarko Thomas.

How well Polamalu plays, how much he plays and how quickly Thomas progresses — for now he's backing up free safety Mike Mitchell — could determine whether Polamalu returns next year at age 34.

“I want to play this game as long and as good as I can play it,” Polamalu said late last season. “Whenever (retirement) time comes, it will come. I'm not sure when it will come, though.”

Polamalu also said he might retire rather than play for another team, saying, “I couldn't see that (playing elsewhere) happening.”

What complicates matters is the Steelers traded a third-round draft pick last year to move up in the fourth round and choose Thomas. If Polamalu returns in 2015 and Thomas still isn't starting, the Steelers would control Thomas for only one more season, in 2016, before he becomes a free agent.

Polamalu's base salary ($6 million) and salary cap hit ($8.25 million) also would be much higher in 2015. His cap hit this season is $6,387,500.

The upside for Polamalu is the addition of linebackers Ryan Shazier and Arthur Moats and free safety Mitchell means he shouldn't have to shift inside nearly as much.

Still, the Steelers are undergoing a makeover on defense — only Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Lawrence Timmons remain as starters from 2012 — after slipping to No. 13 overall in 2013. They were No. 1 the previous two seasons.

That decline is evidenced by their falloff in two key statistics: Their 40 takeaways the last two seasons were the NFL's third fewest, and their 71 sacks ranked only 23rd.

The Steelers badly need the playmaking Polamalu of old to help change that.

“We just have to play more solid and take advantage of the opportunities we are given, as far as turnovers, sacks and being more sound in our assignments,” Polamalu said.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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