Injury history for Steelers' Thomas casts safety's future in doubt

Mark Kaboly
| Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015, 10:57 p.m.

The Steelers have a lot of questions with the back end of their defense heading into next season, and not many answers.

Will Mike Mitchell return to the form that enticed the organization to hand him $25 million during free agency last year?

Does Troy Polamalu want to return? Do the Steelers want him to return? Will free agent Will Allen come back? Is Robert Golden an option?

And, maybe the biggest question of all, can Shamarko Thomas stay healthy?

The answer through two years has been a resounding no.

The Steelers figured the post-Polamalu era would have been an easy transition by now, two years after they gave up a third-round pick in the 2014 draft to get back into the fourth round in 2013 to take Thomas.

Instead, the Steelers don't know much more now about Thomas than they did then, and that could complicate things in the secondary, especially if Polamalu doesn't return.

“I am definitely ready,” Thomas said. “I work hard and prepare hard.”

But that hard work hasn't paid off.

Even though Thomas likely would be the Steelers' first choice to replace Polamalu at strong safety — if he doesn't come back — he doesn't have much of a resume.

After playing 189 snaps the first half of his rookie year mostly as a slot cornerback, Thomas hasn't been on the field since injuring his ankle in a Week 10 game against Buffalo in 2013.

Thomas has not played a defensive snap in 23 consecutive games, seven of which he was inactive because of ankle or hamstring injuries.

His rookie year, Thomas never supplanted Allen after missing two games with an ankle sprain. This year, Thomas missed five of six games with, first, a left hamstring pull followed by a right hamstring pull.

Again, Thomas couldn't beat out Allen for playing time. Thomas has 22 career tackles in 25 games.

“(The injuries) definitely set me back,” Thomas said. “It was definitely a learning process. It taught me to take care of my body better. It set me back but gave me motivation to get better. It's definitely a big offseason for me.”

Thomas continued to thrive on special teams despite not getting on the field defensively. He forced a fumble on a punt in a Week 3 win in Carolina that resulted in a touchdown, and he blocked a punt in the wild-card game against the Ravens.

“He's a hard worker and that's one of the things I like about him,” Mitchell said. “He's a guy you want to teach him what you know because you know he's going to use it to the best of his ability.”

From the day he was drafted, Thomas has sought out veterans for help.

Last year it was Polamalu and Ryan Clark, and this year it was Polamalu and Mitchell.

Polamalu embraced mentoring Thomas and invited him to train with him in California. Thomas took Polamalu up on the offer and the two trained together for a week between the end of offseason practices and the start of training camp.

“You hear a lot about vets are around the league with rookies who might take their job,” Thomas said. “Troy is a humble man. A great man. I am just happy and blessed to be in this situation where he can help me out. I prepare like a pro. Troy taught me that way and to be ready when my time is called.”

That time could be now.

Polamalu has two years left on his contract, but the Steelers could add $6 million in cap space with a post-June 1 release. Polamalu could retire as well.

Whatever happens, Thomas doesn't want to think about what it would mean to be the guy who replaces Polamalu.

“No comment,” Thomas said. “I can't talk about that. That's my mentor.”

Note: The Steelers continued to fill out their offseason roster Thursday when they signed tackle Mitchell Van Dyk to a futures/reserve deal. Van Dyk (6-7, 299) was a seventh-round pick of St. Louis in 2014 out of Portland State. He was released by the Rams on Aug. 30. The Steelers have signed 16 players to futures/reserve contracts since the end of the season.

Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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