Steelers Should Start Planning for a Post Polamalu and Clark World
Will Delaux, Yahoo! Contributor Network
Apr 8, 2013 "Share your voice on Yahoo! websites. Post a commentAs a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, I fully recognize that it is practically sacrilegious to suggest that the Steelers should part ways with -- or at least prepare to part ways with -- Troy Polamalu, one of the team's iconic players. However, as we have seen this offseason with the Chicago Bears and Baltimore Ravens allowing Brian Urlacher and Ed Reed to leave in free agency, sometimes franchises must cut ties with key veterans from their defense given the realities of the salary cap and age-related declines in performance.

The Icon of the Defense

Even casual football fans can pick out Polamalu on the field; he is a hive of activity, alternately blitzing the quarterback, covering a tight end, or playing "centerfield" for the Steelers defense ready to intercept an unsuspecting QB. Polamalu's skills and ability have been key elements in the success of the Steelers' defense recently, as the team has ranked in the top five in total defense in each of the past five years.

However, the time is near for the Steelers to begin to look beyond Polamalu and identify his replacement. I believe that time will, and should, come following the 2013 NFL season. By the 2014 season, Polamalu with be 33 years old, which is quite old by NFL standards for a starting safety. Polamalu is scheduled to make $7.5 million in 2013, with one additional year at $8.25 million for 2014 remaining his contract. With the Steelers operating near the cap and the anticipation of a relatively flat salary cap for the next few seasons, an older safety with declining skills is a luxury that few teams, in particular the Steelers, can afford. In addition to cost considerations, the Steelers must also consider Polamalu's injury history. He has admitted to having suffered eight or nine concussions throughout his NFL career. Given the heightened emphasis on player safety, another concussion could easily spell the end of Polamalu's great career. And after he missed nine games in 2012 due to a strained calf, the potential for age-related injuries must also be taken into account.

The Solid Supporter

Safety Ryan Clark does not receive the acclaim and attention that Polamalu does, but he is just as essential to the success of the Steelers' defense. His solid play at the free safety position and in coverage allows Polamalu to freelance and move around the field, switching between pass coverage, blitzing, and run coverage. Clark provides the Steelers with stability in the secondary, supporting the cornerbacks in coverage. He also has a reputation for being one of the hardest hitting players in the NFL.

Clark will turn 34 during the 2013 season, and is scheduled to make $3.5 million in 2013 in the final year of a four year contract. This means that the Steelers will face the free agency question with Clark following the 2013 season. The key question is: can a team that is up against the salary cap keep two over-30 safeties that will make a combined $11 million in 2013, almost 10 percent of the team's total cap space? For the benefit of the team, which has other needs in the areas of running back and outside linebacker, the answer is no. It is time for the Steelers to begin to look for replacements for these two foundations of the defense.

Options in the 2013 Draft

The Steelers currently hold the 17th (first round), 48th (second round), and 79th (third round) picks in the 2013 draft. The team does have pressing needs for 2013 in the form of upgrading the running back and linebacker positions. However, even with these needs the team must start to look for a young safety that can be brought in to learn the defense and prepare to replace Polamalu or Clark in the secondary. Let's look at options for the Steelers at the safety position in each of the first three rounds. Potential draft targets are identified with the help of rankings from SB Nation:

First Round - 17th pick: Kenny Vaccaro, Texas

Second Round - 48th pick: Matt Elam, Florida; Jonathan Cyprien, Florida International; D.J. Swearinger, South Carolina; Eric Reid, LSU
Third Round - 79th pick: Tony Jefferson, Oklahoma; Earl Wolff, North Carolina State

Given the importance of the athletic and skilled players in the Steelers' zone blitz scheme, I would lean towards a selection of a safety by the second round in order to ensure that the team adds a quality player. Given the Steelers' other positional needs, the selection of Reid or Swearinger in the second round would increase the potential for the Steelers to find a young safety that might reach the same skill level as Polamalu or Clark. Swearinger would be a great choice to replace the hard-hitting Clark, as he has gained a similar reputation in college. Reid projects as a possible Polamalu replacement. He is capable of playing anywhere on the field, helping to either stop the run or support pass coverage.

Hard Decisions

Parting ways with Polamalu and Clark will not be easy for the Steelers. When the time comes, there will likely be significant frustration expressed and no shortage of opinions on the decision from the fan base, football writers, and followers of the NFL. However, if the Steelers act now and use the 2013 draft as an opportunity to find a quality young safety, the sting of losing Polamalu and Clark could be mitigated through the presence of a young replacement worthy of taking the place of one of these two great safeties.