Is There a Steelers Talent Development Deficit? The Tale Two Safeties

Has a Steelers talent development deficit afflicted the franchise during the Mike Tomlin era? The popular and easy answer in Steelers Nation is a resounding “Yes!”

The following tweet out of Mike Tomiln’s press conference leading up to the Saints game only adds fuel to the fire:

As soon as I read this I began rattling off “Steelers Talent Development Deficit: Shamarko Thomas Decision Latest Symptom.” Steel Curtain Rising isn’t a site that gives into knee jerk reactions, and this is a point of pride, but the evidence has been mounting and Tomlin’s announcement seemed add further proof.

  • But then I stopped and thought.

And it became clear that the question isn’t so simple and the tale of two Tomlin-era safeties, Ryan Mundy and Shamarko Thomas illustrates why.

Winning Now vs. Developing Talent

Issue of playing the players that help you win now vs. developing younger talent is ageless. It always ignites the fan’s passions. Especially when a team is struggling.

But when you’re either losing or at least not winning consistently, both the press and fans alike demand an answer to the question.

As a third round pick, Joey Porter was Latrobe’s training camp sensation during the summer of 1999. The Steelers had sorely missed Greg Lloyd’s hell raising presence the year before, Porter initially wore No. 95 and seemed the perfect heir apparent. Levon Kirkland even called him “Greg” in the huddle.

  • Yet Porter did not start a game in 1999.

And as the Steelers fell to 6-10, fans clamored for him to get the ball more. Bill Cowher insisted on starting Carlos Emmons, who wasn’t playing poorly, instead arguing that that Emmons gave him the better chance to win.

Again, people say that when you lose – you didn’t hear too many complaints about James Harrison being stuck behind Clark Haggans during Super Bowl XL.

Sometimes, however, playing the younger guy does in fact give you a better chance to win. The trick is to know when.

The Grooming of Ryan Mundy…

The Steelers picked Ryan Mundy with their final pick in the now ill-famed 2008 draft. One draft analyst panned the move, saying they could have added him as an unrestricted rookie free agent. Mundy was on the practice squad for part of 2008 and played on special teams in 2009.

  • But Steelers coaches thought highly of Mundy.

When Ryan Clark tested the free agency waters, word was the Steelers considered simply replacing him with Mundy. Clark of course resigned with Pittsburgh, and Mike Tomlin also signed Will Allen from Tampa Bay.

  • But Tomlin and Dick LeBeau remained committed to grooming Mundy as a starter.

Mundy started in place of Troy Polamalu vs. New York in week 15. Mark Sanchez did burn him badly on one play, but the Jets outfoxed a lot of Steelers that day. Mundy started again the following week vs. Carolina.

Mundy continued to work himself into the lineup in 2011, even bagging his first interception vs. Kansas City in late November. And when the Steelers went to Denver for the playoffs, Tomlin didn’t hesitate to start Mundy in Ryan Clark’s place.

  • So it seemed natural that with Polamalu nursing injuries in 2012, Mundy would take his place.

And Mundy did take his place, starting the season’s first three games. Steelers fans forget, but the Steelers 2012 defense actually finished the season as a very strong unit after a very shaky start.

And while it’s wrong to scape goat Mundy for the early woes, it’s also true that the defense’s improvement began when Will Allen replaced Mundy as a starter – the same Will Allen who couldn’t get on the field during 2010 and 2011.

Steelers Go Off Script for Shamarko

The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t trade away future draft picks. Its just not in the franchise’s DNA. Chuck Noll did it in 1973, and had to sweat out the third round in the 1974 draft hoping against hope that John Stallworth would be there in the fourth.

  • Noll hated it so much he swore he’d never do it again.

He didn’t. Neither did Tom Donahoe. Neither did Bill Cowher. Neither did Kevin Colbert or Mike Tomlin until 2013, when they traded their 2014 third rounder to move up to pick Shamarko Thomas in the 4th. Carnell Lake defended the move saying if Thomas had been 2 inches taller, he’d have been a first rounder. The Steelers didn’t hesitate in saying Thomas would cover receivers out of the slot.

  • There were even internet whispers that if Thomas looked good enough in camp, Ryan Clark would be gone.

That didn’t happen. But Thomas did get a fair amount of work with the first string defense – until he got hurt. In the interim, the Steelers brought back Will Allen who made an immediate impact, and the Steelers made no effort to get Thomas back on the field after he regained his health.

But what was the rush? The kid was a rookie, right?

Sound logic, except that Allen and not Thomas replaced Mike Mitchell in mini-camp. Fear not, the faithful were told, Thomas is being groomed as the heir apparent for Polamalu. Fair enough, but coaches ruled out the possibly of Thomas covering in the slot, even if the Steelers were thin at corner…

  • …Thomas of course injured one hamstring and then the next.

As I observed earlier, these injuries have robbed Thomas of precious playing time. Mike Tomlin affirmed that, as related by Dale Lolley:

His progress was slowed in the middle portion of the season. He had a high-ankle (injury) that not only caused him to miss some games but miss some quality practice time and limit that practice time. … this journey that we’re on is much like a moving train. Sometimes injuries get you off that train and it’s difficult to get back on.

Translation from coach speak: Tomlin is not playing Thomas (or Ryan Shazier for that matter) because others give him a better chance to win now.

It would almost seem that Tomlin is showing a little buyers remorse at his decision to prioritize Ryan Mundy’s development at the expense of keeping Will Allen on the bench. The pieces of the puzzle fit together nicely except…

Epilogue – Mundy Takes the Windy City

Ryan Mundy unceremoniously left for the New York Giants during the 2013 off season as his departure only served to confirm just how badly the Steelers had laid an egg with the 2008 draft. When he left New York after a year Steelers Nation, those who bothered to take notice, assumed things hadn’t worked out for him in the Big Apple.

  • Per Pro Football Reference, however, Mundy started 9 games, recorded a sack and had a 91 yard interception.

This has been a bad year for the Bears, but if statistics are any guide, Mundy has been a bring spot. He’s started 14 games, has 3 interceptions including a pick six.

No one is pointing as evidence of a Steelers talent development deficit under Mike Tomlin, Dick LeBeau or Carnell Lake; no one’s saying “Why didn’t he perform that way in Pittsburgh? ”

…But that could change really fast if the Steelers fail to make the playoffs.

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