The Pittsburgh Steelers have toyed with the idea of the hybrid safety the last few years.
A versatile coverage guy who can step onto the field in sub-packages and be equally adept in run defense as pass coverage. The kind of player who can make the difference in terms of getting that one incompletion to halt a no-huddle offense.
They brought in undrafted free agent Robert Golden, a S/CB from Arizona, to try to work him into something of an evolution from ex-Steelers safety Ryan Mundy. They put a big priority onto such a position when they traded a future third round draft pick with the Cleveland Browns to get a second pick in the 2013 fourth round to take Syracuse S Shamarko Thomas.
Some of the intrigue with Thomas was the tape the team saw on his man coverage ability in the slot. A player as athletic as Thomas is, who attacks the run with such passion and force, being able to cover? It was easy to draw comparisons to a young Bob Sanders - the ex-Colts and Iowa Hawkeyes safety who, if not for injuries, would have been considered right up there with Steelers S Troy Polamalu and Ravens S Ed Reed in terms of greatness in the 2000s.
Not only could Thomas be groomed to replace Polamalu at strong safety, but he could be used in the meantime as a versatile defensive back, capable of covering the slot while not costing the team bulk against the run.
As Jim Wexell, publisher of Steel City Insider, noted recently in an excellent feature on Thomas, he won't be defending the slot anymore, and will focus solely on playing safety. That's good for the young player. While the idea of replacing Polamalu in Pittsburgh is about as crazy as suggesting any team here change their primary color to blue, Thomas can at least be groomed to be an effective player.
Standing 5-foot-8, his height can be seen as his main limitation but it's nothing proper positioning and technique can't mask. Rare is the strong safety who can start in the box and defend 30 yards in coverage down the field, but Thomas has the strength to be placed in that position, and the speed to turn and run with slot receivers on deep routes. It's a question of his adjusting to underneath coverage schemes, and perhaps most importantly, learning that thin line between too deep and too close to the receiver.
Both of which will encourage pass attempts from the quarterback.
If Thomas works solely as a safety and the Steelers are looking to beef up their "Big Nickel" formations in other ways, getting Thomas on the field is still a viable option. The team used Polamalu as an inside linebacker plenty often last year, and other teams have experimented with true three-safety looks in mid-range downs, where teams might run or pass. Thomas's athleticism is still his best attribute and can still be exploited.
It's a big year for Thomas in the sense the secondary has gotten a lot younger, and while veteran Will Allen is still taking snaps ahead of him while Mike Mitchell nurses a groin injury, Thomas will be called on soon enough.
And if all he needs to worry about is the position he was drafted to play, he should be fine.