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Steelers Free Agent Musings: the secondary

in which I break down the free agents in a sort of geeky way...

Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

It's easy to tell it's the offseason. Mock draftery is popping up everywhere like the crocuses should be but aren't in Pittsburgh. And although most of you know I actually dip my toe in the mock draft waters each year, the time is not ripe yet, thanks to the No Fun League moving it back into May. So those of you who know what's coming will be spared my infamous mocks for a time yet.

So with what do we fill these interminable weeks, other than, I suppose, the Olympics? Most anything, apparently. Offhand remarks of Ryan Clark's. Talking about what people who talk about the NFL say about the Steelers, as if we actually cared. (Which we do, deep down inside. Like Ryan Clark, I'll come clean : )

And I've been MIA, for which I now publicly repent—my actual job has really interfered with my life lately : ) But here I am. Let's talk Steelers free agents.

I realize that a lot of discussion has undoubtedly taken place in my absence. But since I've missed the vast majority of it, I suppose I can address the issue from a somewhat fresh perspective. So I'm going to start at the back end of the defense and see what light I can gather from all the heat.

The first thing to consider is that there are no free agents in the cornerback crew. This doesn't mean the Steelers won't make a move, or more than one move, but for the nonce I'm going to skip the corners (rather the way I've been cleaning my house lately as well) and go straight to the safeties.

There are six safeties listed on the roster list: Ryan Clark at FS, Troy Polamalu at SS, and four other all-purpose safeties, Shamarko Thomas, Will Allen, Robert Golden, and Jordan Dangerfield. Of those six, only Allen and Clark are free agents. Let's get the easy one out of the way first.

Except that there isn't an easy one. A lot of people think Clark punched his ticket right out of Pittsburgh with his comments about marijuana use in the NFL, and more particularly in the Steelers locker room. The Roonies basically had no comment.

This may surprise a lot of you, but I don't really have a problem with what Clark had to say. The thing about Ryan Clark is, he says what he believes to be true. I've spoken with him on one occasion. I've read a lot of what he's had to say. And I've heard him on the radio. And it's all of a piece. He's not a person who stops and thinks about whether what he says is going to result in trouble. You ask him an honest question and he gives you an honest answer. And the honest answer he gave on ESPN2 struck right at the heart of the league's hypocrisy on this issue.

I understand that the league is between a rock and a hard place. As a substance which is currently illegal in most states, including most of the ones in which NFL are located, it would be pretty difficult for the NFL to say they were okay with marijuana use. Although I'm not a big fan of Roger Goodell's, I thought he handled the questions on the matter well before the Super Bowl. The problem is, if the former players who have spoken out on the issue are correct, the use of marijuana by NFL players is so widespread that if the league were to really clamp down and start random testing, they would take the risk of a lot of their star players spending a lot of time on the bench. So they do the only thing they can reasonably do, from a business standpoint, and make the marijuana testing more of an intelligence/character test than anything else. In other words, if you can't pass a test you know is coming within a fairly short window of time, a time when, furthermore, you should need it least for medicinal purposes, you are either  lacking in intelligence or self-control, either of which will surely have implications in other areas of your life, possibly including your effectiveness on a football field.

I find it very interesting that Mike Tomlin gave Ryan Clark permission to work for ESPN this past season. Knowing Ryan as he does, I'm sure he knew he wouldn't like everything that came out of his mouth. But, I believe, also knowing Ryan as he does, he knew that it would not stem from malice or ambition or anything but plain honesty. If possible, I respect Tomlin even more for this.

So do I believe Clark punched his ticket out of Pittsburgh by his comments? No. I think whether the Steelers offer him a contract or not will be completely a business decision, both financial and performance-based. I don't know enough about the business end of it to know what the Steelers would have to offer Clark to retain him, and how that would fit with the very delicate balancing act they have coming up to get in under the cap. What I can speak to is his performance.

A lot has been made of the drop-off in Clark's play this past season. In my opinion, not enough has been made of how the loss of Larry Foote in the first game of the season effected the entire defense for the worse. And nowhere was that more evident than in the secondary. If Troy Polamalu is playing linebacker, all of a sudden the entire balance of the backfield is thrown into disarray. If Ryan Clark was Earl Thomas, or whoever else you want to plug in back there, he might have made more plays, but it's pretty hard for one man to do two people's jobs, and that's the impression I had of what was being asked of Clark for a lot of snaps every game. In such case, no amount of wiliness and intelligence can make up for the inevitable loss of speed when you're on the downside of your career.

So let's look at some numbers. As I type this, I don't know what they are going to show, although I have my suspicions.

First, let's compare his past six years with the Steelers, according to Pro Football Focus.

In 2008 Troy Polamalu was the 2nd-highest rated safety, behind Quintin Mikell of the Eagles. Troy's score was 23.3, earned in 1003 snaps. Clark was No. 19 with a cumulative score of 5.5, earned in 864 snaps.

In 2009 Troy didn't play enough snaps to be ranked in the players taking the majority of the snaps. Clark was once again ranking 19th, with a 5.7 score in 968 snaps.

2010 saw a relatively heathy Troy (871 snaps) ranking No. 5, with a score of 13.2. Astonishingly, Clark was again ranked No. 19, with a score of 6.5 in 995 snaps.

2011 saw Troy hit the top of the chart with a 22.1 score in 930 snaps. I went right to No. 19 to look for Ryan Clark, and he had actually fallen to No. 25, with a score of 3.5 in 1008 snaps.

In 2012 he shot up to No. 11, with a score of 11.8 in 909 snaps. Troy was once again ailing, as we all remember, and only played just over 400 snaps. He still accumulated a score of 8.4, good for the 13th spot.

Now comes the interesting one. In 2013 Troy played 1023 snaps. Despite playing so much linebacker, a position at which he does not particularly excel, he was still ranked No. 5 with a score of 12.2, playing 1093 snaps. Ryan Clark, on the other hand, played 1084 snaps and accumulated a score of -1.5.

Let's look at those numbers on a chart, along with a few twists of my own. I have to say, I didn't see quite what I expected:


The first chart is the PFF scores I gave you above. But since the score is literally the sum of all of their weekly scores, I thought it might make sense to divide the score by the number of snaps played, since, all other things being equal, someone playing 1000 snaps is going to have more chances to make an impression, good or bad. As you can see, doing this essentially didn't change Ryan Clark's line at all, but it made a couple of critical distinctions in Troy's line. Which isn't where I was trying to go, but I guess if I were trying to decide what to do about Troy it would make me think. Fortunately, it isn't my problem to think about that, although of course the front office is doing so.


The first chart is the PFF rankings. (I expressed them as negative numbers so that they would be the more natural way up when looking at them - in other words, higher is better.) I also tried rearranging the rankings after adjusting the scores, and it did bump Ryan Clark up to No. 38 in 2013, but generally speaking didn't seem to make enough difference for me to bother for the other years. The last chart is what I found surprising. It is Clark and Polamalu's adjusted scores compared with two things—the league average of the adjusted scores for safeties (the ones playing the majority of the snaps), and the league average for the top 50% by rank for each year. What this tells us, I think, is that while Ryan Clark was always a distinctly better-than average safety up until the 2013 season, the only season he was better than the average of the top 40+ players (the number ranked was usually around 84-88) was in 2012.  So if I were the Steelers, my question would be, was 2012 or 2013 the aberration?

Now let's add in Will Allen and have another look at those charts:


I'm not showing Will Allen's adjusted scores because he played so few snaps (other than, I presume, special teams) in the time he was with Tampa Bay and his first two years in Pittsburgh. As a result, the calculation gets pretty screwy. And since he didn't have sufficient snaps until 2013 to appear with the top 75% of safeties in terms of playing time I just ranked him according to where he would have ended up, given the score he had. The arrow is definitely pointing up with Allen, as Mike Tomlin would say, and once he got a substantial number of snaps in 2013 he was definitely well above the average safety, with an adjusted score of 3.7, although still below the average of the top 50%.

So now it's time to play "What if I were Kevin Colbert/Mike Tomlin?" Ryan Clark is 34. Will Allen is 31. Although Allen's best year is below all but one of Clark's, I think there is still potential for growth.

Of course, it is unfair to compare either man to Troy Polamalu. History will ultimately determine whether Polamalu was a once-in-a-generation player (and of course Ed Reed was pushing the bar as well) but there's no doubt he has been one of the very best safeties in the league. On the other hand, it is definitely fair to compare them to the average, and Allen began well below average, has moved up to average, and lately to distinctly above average. Because PFF only goes back to 2008, I wasn't able to look at the same point in Ryan Clark's career, so I can't say where his trajectory began.

Given the youth and inexperience in the safety room, other than Troy, I would want to keep a vet, although probably not two. And this is where it gets tough. I mentioned earlier that moving Troy almost certainly affected Clark's stats, but what I didn't mention is the chemistry between the two which allows Troy to be Troy. This is not something to take for granted. However, Will Allen now has had three years to study how things work.

And Allen is cheap. He was making what looks to me like the vet minimum last season. ($818,000) Ryan Clark was making $3 million. Although he wouldn't command that in a new contract, I'm guessing he wouldn't be keen to sign for the vet minimum, either.

All I can say is, I'm glad these aren't my decisions. But ultimately the eye test this past season said that Ryan Clark was starting to look as if he had lost a step, or more. Unless I was convinced he had another 2012 year in him if Troy is back at his usual spot, I would probably go with Will Allen.  And if this is the case, I will bid Ryan Clark a fond farewell, and look forward to his rapidly rising broadcasting career...