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Monday, March 26, 2007

Safety dance

Priorities are what often drive a draft more than anything else. As much as teams like to pay lip service to the old “best player available” mantra, let’s be honest about something for a second: Few teams, if any, actually work their draft in that matter.

We’re going to take a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers, position by position, over the next month as we try to get a better handle on what directions the team will go on April 28 and 29.

Today: The safeties.

Safety is one position the Steelers are not only stocked at with a good quantity of players, but quality as well.

Starting strong safety Troy Polamalu remains one of the best players at his position in the league – one of a handful of amazing talents at the position currently in the league who are redefining the position. At free safety, veteran Ryan Clark held down the position last season, with rookie Anthony Smith – a third-round draft pick – starting the final three games when Clark was out with an injury.

Recently re-signed Tyrone Carter, a veteran with 34 career starts under his belt including three last year in place of an injured Polamalu, also provides depth.

Considering the team usually only carries four safeties - five at most - on its roster, there wouldn’t seem to be any room for another youngster on the roster.

But looming over the team’s plans right now is the fact that Polamalu, a three-time Pro Bowl player, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the completion of the 2007 season. Considering some of the contracts handed out to safeties in the past year, signing Polamalu to a contract extension – something the team is working on – isn’t going to come cheaply.

The Steelers have also never liked to paint themselves into a corner with contract negotiations. They don’t like to go into a contract situation with a veteran player without having a possible replacement in place in case negotiations break down. Add to that the fact a bank-breaking contract extension for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looming in the future as well, and Polamalu’s situation is a bit tenuous.

The Steelers would love to guarantee having Polamalu roaming their defensive backfield for another five or six years. But will the cost to do so become prohibitive?

Some have argued that if new head coach Mike Tomlin plans of eventually moving to a cover-2 base defense, Polamalu doesn’t fit the scheme. That, of course, is hogwash since great players defy schemes. They are able to adapt to any style of play.

The question is, however, would Polamalu be as effective in a cover-2?

The knock on him coming out of college was that he wasn’t very good in coverage. And that’s a fair assessment. But he does possess rare ball skills and is able to cover a lot of ground quickly to help make up for any coverage lapses.

If Polamalu were to leave after this season, however, the Steelers likely have his replacement on the roster as Clark would slide from free safety to strong – the position he started at with the Washington Redskins – to play beside Smith, who will be a good bet to start beside Polamalu this season.

That said, it’s unlikely the Steelers will take a safety in this year’s draft.

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