Rookie Thomas impresses teammates while learning on the job

By Ralph N. Paulk
Published: Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Shamarko Thomas tumbled down some teams' draft boards partly because some perceived his 5-foot-9 frame to be a detriment in an era of big, heavy-hitting safeties.

The Steelers overlooked his size when they visited him during his pro day at Syracuse. Thomas' speed, agility and football aptitude captured the attention of general manager Kevin Colbert and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

“We have had some pretty good short players around here,” LeBeau said. “If a guy plays good football, we don't overexcite ourselves with his height. A good safety can bring guys down to his level.”

Indeed, the 5-10 Troy Polamalu carved out an All-Pro career that likely will land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Thomas didn't waste time consulting with Polamalu. And Polamalu didn't pull punches about the difficulty of processing LeBeau's defensive schemes.

“Troy said, ‘I'm not going to lie to you. It took nearly a year to learn the playbook,' ” Thomas recalled. “He said boogie down to learn all of the positions because it'll make the job easier.

“My first impression of the playbook was that it was big. I had to adjust to the wording because our defense in college was way different.

“I really understand my assignments more each day because Troy has really been helpful,” added Thomas, who has practiced in the nickel package. “They've stressed how important it is to get into the playbook, and things are starting to slow down some. I'm not thinking as much now because I'm in better position to make plays.”

Thomas has been a sponge the first two weeks of training camp. He keeps close to his mentor, occasionally resting his arms on Polamalu's shoulder as Thomas inquires about his progress.

“(Thomas) being here couldn't come at a better time for a better person,” Polamalu said. “All (safety) Ryan (Clark) and I ever wanted from anyone new coming in is to have a humbling disposition and a willingness to learn.

“The more he's willing to learn, the more he can soak up and the less he'll make mistakes. Ryan and I have made every mistake in the book, so hopefully he'll learn from us both.”

So far, it's been difficult to evaluate the native Virginian. He looks like a natural some days and a project on others. He clearly looks better suited to defend the run than the pass — a weighted examination that can't be gauged accurately until he lines up against the Giants in the preseason opener Saturday night at Heinz Field.

“What attracted us to him is the energy he brings to the game,” LeBeau said. “When we talked to him in the one-on-one interviews, he impressed you as a very mature young man. He's been everything we anticipated he would be.

“He's definitely going to get better. We'll see what he does with the tools he has. I don't like to put too much on these young guys because he'll have to develop at his own speed.”

However, veteran linebacker Larry Foote has no doubt the Steelers have discovered the man likely to succeed either the 32-year-old Polamalu or 33-year-old Clark.

“He is a Steeler,” Foote said. “I told Kevin we got lucky in getting him.

“Shamarko is fast, and he's in the action. He has enough speed and size for this game. Steeler Nation will be pleased when they see him.”

Thomas is already feeling the pressure, but he welcomes the challenge.

“At first, I was in awe when I stepped onto the field with all these great players,” Thomas said. “When I saw Troy make a play, I thought, ‘Now this is the real NFL.' After that, my instincts kicked in because I was born to compete.

“I felt some pressure coming in here, but it's something I've always fed on. The way I figure, I've got time to learn from the best.”

Coach Mike Tomlin usually sticks with his top four or five draft picks. So Thomas' roster spot seems assured considering the Steelers lost Ryan Mundy and Will Allen to free agency. Still, he's been pressed some in camp by Robert Golden and Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith.

The more demanding challenge Thomas faces in training camp might be the battle of expectations. It's rare that a fourth-round draft pick has so many eyes focused on his every move.

Of course, the attraction is the possibility he's the one who soon will replace Polamalu or Clark.

“I haven't thought about it, but everyone says it,” Thomas said. “I'm just blessed to have this opportunity to learn from Troy and Ryan because they are the smartest people I've ever met on a football field.”