It's hard to replace a legend.
The reality is that no one on the Steelers' roster now, or in the future, will adequately replace Troy Polamalu, who retired after the 2014 season. He was one a once-in-a-lifetime talent who transcended his position and the game itself.
The good news for guys like Shamarko Thomas is that no one is actually asking them to be the next Troy Polamalu. The coaching staff is simply expecting them to play at a professional level.
The bad news is that no one really knows what a realistic expectation for these guys may be. With the exception of veterans Will Allen and Mike Mitchell, the rest of the safeties on the team average just 2.125 years of experience. Five of those eight have been in the league no more than one season.
Steelers Training Camp Preview: Cornerbacks
With the retirement of long-time starting cornerback Ike Taylor, the Steelers find themselves with a lot of questions at the position. But, with a group of players who are both high-character and highly athletic just like Taylor, perhaps a few of them can emulate -- and elevate -- the kind of play for which Taylor became known.
Steelers Training Camp Preview: OLBs
Outside linebacker may not be the Steelers' most uncertain position on the team right now, but it's definitely the most interesting. Two young first-round picks? A guy who is literally old enough to be a grandfather who may still be one of the most feared players in the league? The player who led the Canadian Football League in sacks in 2014? Yes, please.
No one can say the Steelers aren't getting younger, but this might be a little extreme.
Thomas is already penciled in at Polamalu's now-vacated strong safety slot. In two seasons, he has 34 tackles, and an ugly claim to fame: being utterly abused by the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski in 2013. It's not all bad, though; just unknown. He showed good instincts in college and plays very fast. His greatest strength is his ability to hit like a missile -- he's built like a brick...umm...latrine.
There's also Isaiah Lewis, who spent the 2014 season working for UPS. Signed to a futures contract during the winter, Lewis is known as a hitter with average-at-best ball skills. Unless he turns into a miraculous find or a special-teams ace, he's destined for the practice squad or the waiver wire.
The only other likely prospect at strong safety is Allen. Pittsburgh turned to him again in 2014, having learned their lesson partway through the 2013 season and signing him after he was cut by the Cowboys five weeks into the season. In the 28 games since, he has four starts, one interception, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. If Thomas fails to impress, or if he once again finds himself injured, Allen would be a reliable, if unspectacular, stopgap.
At free safety, we find Mike Mitchell returning as the starter after a shaky 2014 in which it was revealed he had a significant groin injury that hampered him most of the year. If healthy, he should improve a good deal.
Behind him is a logjam. There is Robert Golden who, despite being an undrafted free agent in 2012, has spent a fair amount of time on the field. He hasn't wowed, but he hasn't stunk things up either. He remains a decent option as a backup.
Jordan Dangerfield is a 2013 UDFA who signed with Pittsburgh in 2014 and was on and off the practice squad throughout the season. He was productive in college at a small school (Towson) but has limited potential as a pro. Despite being a free safety, he has trouble staying with guys on the deep ball -- not a great thing when you are the last line of defense.
There's also Alden Darby, who is a little smallish, even for a cornerback, let alone a safety. He's smart and physical, but he just lacks the size to be a solid pro safety and the speed to be a solid corner. He's got a history as a special teams gunner, though.
You will be forgiven if you momentarily mistake Ross Ventrone's flowing locks for the departed Polamalu's. They both, after all, played with the same reckless abandon. Unfortunately, Ventrone doesn't have the same, nearly mythical instincts. And, at 5-feet 8 inches he's already the shortest safety on the roster.
Ian Wild, formerly of the Canadian Football League's Winnipeg Blue Bombers, signed with Pittsburgh in January. At 6-feet tall and 210 pounds, he has the size to play either safety position, and that versatility could play in his favor. He could end up being one of the bigger surprises of camp, or just another body to fill out the roster until cut-down day.
Possibly the most intriguing safety on the roster this year is Gerod Holliman, who was selected in the seventh round of the 2015 draft. He is an interception machine -- he led the NCAA in picks in 2014 with 14, one of which went for a touchdown. If he can show that his tackling woes in college are behind him, he could easily make this team.
There won't be another Troy Polamalu, but that doesn't mean the next star Pittsburgh safety isn't already on the roster.
My Absurdly Premature Prediction: Thomas and Mitchell start, with Will Allen and Gerod Holliman backing them up. Holliman is a playmaker, which this team needs, badly. If they keep a fifth, it's probably Golden.