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Steelers hit it big with Ryan Clark in 2006

Clark bridged an incredibly big period of time when he signed with the team to be its free safety in 2006. With a free agency class much larger than usual, it's a wonder which one might be the next Ryan Clark.

Ex-Steelers safety Chris Hope got his Super Bowl ring, and was gone in 2006. The recipient of a lucrative free agent contract with the Tennessee Titans, his move was expected, if not anxiously anticipated.

Hope was a solid safety for an outstanding Steelers' defense. No Pro Bowls, just championships, playing the back piece of a secondary that featured the strength of its front seven and the spontaneity of the recently minted Everything Safety (Troy Polamalu). Hope was the backbone of a spectacular group. He earned his contract.

It left the Steelers in something of a bind, however. Without a home grown back-up - the same way Hope earned the job, learning the role before Brent Alexander was released in 2004.

The Steelers dipped into free agency on their own, netting the raw but powerful Ryan Clark.

His form wasn't at its highest level, having spent time with the Giants as an undrafted free agent in 2002 and ultimately becoming a starter in Washington. The Redskins weren't going to pay him when his contract expired, and he headed to, presumably, become the Steelers' next starting free safety.

They also traded back from the second round in the draft that year, selecting Syracuse big-hitter Anthony Smith, with whom, Clark competed in 2006 for the starting position. By 2007, Smith had overtaken Clark, but wore out his welcome, particularly after a statement he made before the Steelers played the undefeated New England Patriots.

While it wasn't as clear-cut as many made it out to be, Smith said, in so many words (and after being baited by the media) he guaranteed victory - IF the Steelers played their game.

They must not have, as the Patriots thrashed the Steelers as they did to many teams that year. Smith found himself in the doghouse repeatedly anyway, and found himself buried on the bench behind Clark for the remainder of his time in Pittsburgh.

That's when Clark became one of the lightning rods of the defense, as well as the team. His big hits were often highlighted, particularly one that put a massive exclamation point on a win over rival Baltimore in the AFC Championship game. Clark unloaded into running back Willis McGahee, appearing to render both players unconscious. Clark forced a fumble on the play, and after Lawrence Timmons recovered it, the Steelers knelt out the clock for their second AFC championship in four seasons.

Clark, along with inside linebacker James Farrior, became the representatives of a roster that was magnificently constructed from all three phases - the draft, undrafted free agency and veteran free agency. He was more than just a plug-and-play guy, he was a strong run defender who played excellent back-half defense - another great signing from a front office that rarely made mistakes in those days.

Clark fell somewhat out of favor here and there, never one to hold down his opinion. He had spats with the media at times, and voiced his extreme dissatisfaction with the direction of the league in terms of helmet-to-helmet contact. He racked $40,000 in fines in 2011, along with multiple penalties.

Clark was with the Steelers for so long, he naturally seemed like a guy who grew into his entire career with the team. In a few ways, he did.

The Steelers signed a bevy of free agents, all of whom are roughly the same as Clark was when he left the Redskins. Somewhat experienced players who are looking to develop into outstanding veterans in the middle range of their careers. Mike Mitchell will be Clark's replacement at free safety. Defensive lineman Cam Thomas will look to rejuvenate his career as a 5-technique player. LeGarrette Blount is a complimentary back with the skill to carry the load.

They can take a lesson from Clark; show up and do your job well, and the team will reward you.

Until it doesn't, of course. The nature of business compelled the Steelers to upgrade the level of athleticism at the position this season, and Clark was not signed back. He inked a deal with the Washington Redskins Monday, likely finishing out his career where it essentially began.

Bidding farewell to Clark now is the same as welcoming Mitchell, all in a very similar fashion to what happened with Hope and Clark. The passing of one torch onto another, fans can just hope for the best.