Just when things were looking bleakest for Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith and his future with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the 2013 NFL season may just give one more second chance for him to prove his worth.
If the team didn't feel Cromartie-Smith had the ability to play at the highest level of professional football, they probably would not have signed him as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2010; nor would they have signed him again after his stint in the UFL proved even more fruitless than his first tour of the NFL. They certainly wouldn't have made sure he would be around for training camp this season, either.
While not the most sensational safety during his collegiate career at the University of Texas-El Paso, he was a solid and reliable player earning two All-Conference USA honorable mentions. Unfortunately, honorable mentions don't really do much for draft stock inflation. However, the Steelers saw enough from his portfolio to snatch him up when all 31 other teams passed on him, and they continue to go out of their way to keep him around.
Some people have already written off Cromartie-Smith as a cut casualty for 2013, expecting Pittsburgh to only keep four safeties, as a deep off-season roster will eventually be whittled down to only 53 men. They also wrote him off last season, with Will Allen and Ryan Mundy around to back up Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu, not to mention the emergence of one Robert Golden; just like they wrote him off when he was just an undrafted rookie. In 2013, those people could be wrong again, for the fourth consecutive year.
Clark and Polamalu are both as healthy and ready as ever, but their career clocks are beginning to wind down. The team addressed the position in the draft by snatching Shamarko Thomas, and continue to diligently develop the multi-talented Golden. However, Golden is still relatively untested - playing very little defensive football during his rookie season. The sky may be the only limit to Golden's potential, but potential is rarely realized immediately.
The truth of the matter is he may prove worthy of an NFL contract, but he may not be ready for the team to rely on him like they have Allen and Mundy in the past. Clark has enjoyed a relatively clean bill of health during his career, but even he has begun to come to terms with the idea of 2013 being his last season in a Steelers uniform and the NFL. Polamalu has not been so medically fortunate as Clark, plus his contract expires following the 2014 season. As Polamalu nursed a heel for a better part of 2012, the team found itself leaning heavily on Mundy and Allen to fill his cleats.
This year, with Allen joining the Dallas Cowboys and Mundy signing with the New York Giants, suddenly Cromartie-Smith is the most experienced safety behind Clark and Polamalu. Thomas has drawn rave reviews since being taken in the fourth-round of the draft, but he is still a rookie trying to assimilate to coordinator Dick LeBeau's mindset. Golden was unable to break into the lineup during his rookie season. Reality says Thomas may not either.
On the same hand, Golden may not be ready to be the next man up, should injury befall either starter this year. Golden's durability has yet to be tested in the NFL. Considering the combined inexperience of Golden and Thomas, the team may find itself keeping a rare fifth safety as insurance.
Keeping five safeties is not the norm, unless the fifth guy happens to specialize in special teams or fills some other vital role in the organization. However, the 2012 roster taught us how little the Steelers organization cares for the status-quo guide to roster building, after the team kept more running backs than receivers. One of those backs was starting fullback Will Johnson, and another was returner and tackling dummy Chris Rainey; however, they still counted as backs, and the team didn't mind sacrificing an extra receiver to keep them both, although it did come back to bite them in the end as Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace each dealt with injuries at different points in the season, which forced David Gilreath in and out of action and even provided Plaxico Burress with one more shot at the NFL.
This season, the Steelers are making sure the injury bug doesn't catch them with their pants down again, by making sure they have contingency plans across the entire roster. Al Woods is getting snaps at nose tackle, despite being a defensive end. Kelvin Beachum is playing musical chairs along the offensive line. Stevenson Sylvester is taking more snaps at outside linebacker, even though he was drafted to play inside. The snaps in shorts may not mean significant depth chart changes, but the team is making sure players are prepared to move to less familiar positions should injuries run rampant once again.
Once roster evaluations reach the safety position, the team must not only worry about injuries, but also the inexperience of their reserves. Golden and Thomas may eventually prove themselves ready and capable of becoming the team's next dynamic duo in the deep secondary, but there are no guarantees either will reach such a level by the start of 2013.
If either struggle during training camp, or injuries begin biting; the team may have little choice but to keep Cromartie-Smith on the active roster for a change, even if he remains deactivated on gamedays. Previous speculation pointed toward William Gay as being a possible emergency safety, however coach Carnell Lake has already addressed the notion by saying Gay could make the switch, but the team would rather he didn't. They want Gay to bring his experience to sub-package outside duties, which will leave him relatively unavailable to also play safety on any kind of regular basis if need be.
Which player would have to lose their seat for the team to keep Cromartie-Smith has yet to be determined, and Cromartie-Smith's inclusion on the roster is not even remotely guaranteed; but his retention for insurance purposes would fit the apparent theme of this year's off-season. Unfortunately for Cromartie-Smith, his performance this preseason will not only be gauged against his positional peers, but also players from every position on the roster.
If Cromartie-Smith can put together his best preseason as a professional while taking on the entire field, he can continue to prove wrong all those who have insisted he never belonged in Pittsburgh at all.