The countdown and speculation begin immediately.
When Roger Goodell steps to the podium at Radio City Music Hall and announces the draft picks for NFL teams, the fans begin clamoring how long it will take for specific players to crack the lineup and make an impact. The only problem though is even top notch first round draft choices can take years to develop, but fans don't want, nor do they feel they have, the time to wait for that development.
The Steelers are no different with their players. Even the best players that have worn the black and gold in the past decade have had to wait their turn and learn the system. Troy Polamalu didn't start his rookie year as a first round selection, Lawrence Timmons didn't start and Cam Heyward had to pay his dues before cracking the starting lineup last season. All first round picks, all had to learn the system.
The most recent Steelers pick that has fans starting to wring their hands is second year safety, Shamarko Thomas. Thomas played in sub packages as a rookie until he hurt his ankle and experienced veteran Will Allen took over and never gave up that role.
Unlike Timmons, Polamalu and Heyward, Thomas is a 4th round draft pick that plays a position in which the Steelers knew he was going to be more of a project than an immediate starter. When you are drafted by a team with Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu as mainstays in the secondary, the attitude changes from when will I start to, how can I contribute.
As Thomas told Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Whatever coach wants me to be," "I'm just a football player. I'll play strong, free, nickel, corner, whatever you want me to play. I just want to be great at whatever position they put me at."
Thomas' understanding of the complex Dick LeBeau defense has increased from his rookie campaign to his sophomore season which will only benefit his potential playing time in 2014, "I've progressed a lot," "I know the whole defense now. Last year I was all over the place. This year I'm settled in, comfortable and I can just play. It's just like college. When you come in your freshman year you don't know the defense and the next year you settle in, fly around and make plays. That's what I'm doing now. I don't have to think no more. I don't have to second-guess myself. I just fly around and make plays."
Fans shouldn't give up on Thomas as a future safety for a team that has a rich tradition at the position. After all, even the first round picks need some time to develop.