Steelers Free Agent Focus: Shamarko Thomas – 4 Years Later Thomas Fails to Disprove Doubters

The Pittsburgh Steelers do not like to trade future draft picks. The franchise went down that road too many times in the Pre-Noll era and paid the price repeatedly. Nonetheless Noll did it in the summer of 1973 when he traded the Steelers 1974 3rd round pick to the Raiders to acquire Glen Ray Hines.

Because of that trade, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley and Bill Nunn were forced to sit on their hands after drafting Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert during the Steelers 1974 Draft in hopes that no one took John Stallworth in the 3rd round.

Neither did Tom Donahoe or Bill Cowher, and neither did Kevin Colbert until the 2013 NFL Draft when the Steelers traded their 2014 third round pick to get the Cleveland Browns 2013 4th round pick to grab Shamarko Thomas in the 4th round, and four years later Shamarko Thomas enters free agency have failed to disprove the doubters.

Shamarko Thomas, Markus Wheaton, Steelers 2013 training camp, Shamarko Thomas free agent, Shamarko Thomas rookie

Shamarko Thomas & Markus Wheaton as rookies in 2013 at Latrobe. Photo Credit: Ryan Wilson, CBSSports.com

Capsule Profile of Shamarkoy Thomas’ Steelers Career

Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake explained Pittsburgh’s break from character by arguing that if Shamarko Thomas, who stands at 5’10”, were two inches taller, he’d have been a first round pick.

  • In a word, Pittsburgh as hot on Shamarko Thomas.

The Steelers immediately worked Shamarko Thomas into the defense, a rarity for a rookie in Dick LeBeau’s system. The Steelers goal was to groom Shamarko Thomas as Troy Polamalu’s successor, and the first step in that process was to get Shamarko on the field covering slot receivers as a nickel back.

Most of those came at the beginning of the season, before he got injured forcing the Steelers to bring back Will Allen. While Allen remained “The next man up” when Shamarko Thomas got healthy, Thomas still got some work with the defense, although that ended after the Steelers 2013 debacle against the Patriots.

Shamarko Thomas, Shamarko Thomas workout

Shamarko Thomas working out during the 2014 off season

The Steelers 2014 OTA’s brought the first sign that the Steelers might be having second thoughts about Shamarko’s ability to succeed Troy Polamalu. Will Allen was the number 2 safety on the depth chart, and Shamarko Thomas suffered an injury early in the season. When he returned, his action came exclusively on special teams.

  • Mike Tomlin explained away the move by suggesting that Thomas was simply struggling to board a “Moving Train” as would any player would.

Rookie defensive coordinator Keith Butler gave Shamarko Thomas his first extended shot at earning the starting strong safety job during the summer of 2015. The Steelers started Shamarko Thomas throughout preseason, but Thomas continued to make mistake after mistake. Shortly before the season opener, the Steelers benched Shamarko Thomas in favor of Will Allen.

For the record, Shamarko Thomas played 20 snaps with the Steelers defense in 2015 and 5 snaps in 2016…

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Shamarko Thomas

In 2016, whenever the Steelers needed help at safety, the Steelers looked to Jordan Dangerfield, signaling the definitive end to the Shamarko Thomas experiment.

  • But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a case for the Steelers resigning Shamarko Thomas.

If Shamarko Thomas has been a brutal disappointment at safety, he’s been a quality often times standout special teams player. Yes, he’s made mistakes, but he’s arguably been the Steelers best gunner for the past several years.

Clearly, if Shamarko Thomas has a future in the NFL it is on special teams. Clearly on one will pay him much more the than the veteran minimum, if even that. If Shamarko Thomas is bound to be racing downfield to stop kick and punt returners, doesn’t it make sense for him to be doing it in Pittsburgh?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Shamarko Thomas

When things don’t pan out with a high-profile draft pick (think Jarvis Jones), often times it is in the best interests of both parties to go their separate ways. Yes, Shamarko Thomas is a quality special teams player and, to be brutally frank, Danny Smith’s special teams don’t have the luxury of cavalierly showing good players to the door.

Fair enough. But the truth is even if the Steelers bring Shamarko Thomas back on a veteran minimum salary to play special teams, that means that he’ll be taking a roster spot that could be occupied by another young player who can both do Shamarko’s job on special teams, and potentially contribute something, either now or in a future season, to the offense or defense.

  • Shamarko Thomas isn’t going to contribute anything to the Steelers defense.

That’s simply the reality. As early as 2015 people were already labeling the 2013 NFL Draft as one of the worst in history. If that’s true, then the Steelers came out of that draft with Le’Veon Bell, Landry Jones, Markus Wheaton and Vince Williams, giving them a pretty successful haul.

But the Steelers missed on Jarvis Jones and missed on Shamarko Thomas, and it is time for them to move on from both mistakes.

Curtain’s Call on Shamarko Thomas and the Steelers

The Shamarko Thomas situation promises to be one of the more interesting, albeit low-profile decisions the Steelers make during the 2017 off season. Reading the tea leaves from reporters such as Dale Lolley and Jim Wexell, there are some signs that the Steelers have some interest in bring Thomas back.

  • But he won’t be a priority, which means he’ll get a chance to test the market.

If the Steelers can bring him back at or near the veteran minimum, he’d be a good addition to their special teams. If someone wants to offer him more than that, then Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin will wisely thank him for his service and send him on his way.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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Bill Nunn, Jr. Pittsburgh Steelers “Ace in the Hole” 1924-2014

Bill Nunn, Jr. the longest-tenured member of the Pittsburgh Steelers scouting community has passed away from complications suffered from a stroke on the eve of what would have been his 46th NFL Draft. Nunn was 89 and is survived by his wife Francis, daughter Lydell, and son Bill Nunn III.

  • A great many fans in Steelers Nation will react to news by asking, “Who is Bill Nunn?” 

The answer to that question is that nobody whose name isn’t “Rooney” or “Noll” had a bigger role in securing those six Steelers Lombardi trophies than Bill Nunn.

In the battle reverse the Pittsburgh Steelers first 40 years of straight losing:

  • Dan Rooney operated as the statesman orchestrating behind the scenes, 
  • Chuck Noll served as the field general, 
  • Art Rooney, Jr. and Dick Haley coordinated the logistics and material, 

And Bill Nunn Jr. acted as the Steelers Ace in the Hole.

Nunn could play that role because he brought something to the Steelers that other NFL teams were either unready or unable to embrace.

Blindsiding the NFL with Colorblindness

The National Football League began as an integrated organization, however by 1933 the league’s final two African American’s had left the league which stayed segregated until 1945. Integration came slowly to the NFL following World War II, in well into the 1960’s many NFL teams enforced unofficial quota systems limited the number of black players they selected.

Art Rooney Sr. was in no way a racist but the same cannot be said for some of his coaches, such as Bill Austin, who Roy Jefferson overhead making racist comments.

Whether Austin factored race into his draft decisions or not, when first approached by the Steelers Bill Nunn, who then worked as a sports columnist at the Pittsburgh Courier, rebuffed the Rooneys, saying he didn’t like the way they did business.

  • Dan Rooney called him in for a face-to-face meeting which ended with Nunn agreeing to work part time for the Steelers.

With Chuck Noll’s arrival in 1969 Nunn’s status shifted to full time, and six seasons later the Pittsburgh Steelers won their first Super Bowl. Nunn explained the transformation this way:

To me, Dan and Chuck were the same type of person. I don’t think they see color, and I don’t say that about a lot of people. I say that sincerely. When we used to line up the draft board, Chuck wasn’t concerned with the dots.

Nunn, a former college athlete of course understood athletics and had annually produced an All-African American team based on players from HBC (Historically Black Colleges) rosters.

  • But it was Nunn’s network of connections at those schools that made him so invaluable to the Steelers. 

With the Steelers running one of the limited number of color blind scouting operations in 1969, and Nunn scouting the HBC circuit, the Steelers drafted Ernie Holmes, Joe Gilliam, Glen Edwards, Frank Lewis, Donnie Shell, L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, and John Stallworth.

  • Note, that’s half of the Steel Curtain and two NFL Hall of Famers, acquired thanks to active resistance to the prejudice that ruled the day

While finding these players was important, but Nunn’s role was far from limited to scouting the HBC’s under the radar. He also negotiated player contracts and ran the Steelers training camp for several years. But it is his work as a scout that made him famous, as the next section makes clear.

Steelers 1974 Draft: Nunn Helps Author the Greatest NFL Draft in History

The Pittsburgh Steelers 1974 Draft was the best in NFL history bringing the team four Hall of Famers named Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster.

Nunn had a pivotal role in helping the Steelers identify Stallworth, who was a college student at Alabama A&M, first feigning illness and then helping hoard the only tape that existed of Stallworth. Noll had had his eye on Stallworth for a long time, and wanted him in the first round. Nunn talked him into drafting Swann.

Then Noll wanted him in the second. Art Rooney Jr. protested, recommending Lambert. The Steelers had dealt their third round pick, but Nunn coolly assured Noll “’The average (team) isn’t looking at him like we are.’”

The Steelers had to sweat out the third round, but when the 4th arrived, Stallworth was there, and the rest is history.

Pillar of the Steelers Franchise

Nunn continued to work in the scounting department until he “retired in 1987.” For a few years he and his wife wintered in Florida and returned to Pittsburgh, but eventually tired of the snowbird’s life.

  • And that “retirement” was in name only. 

Nunn continued to work in the Steelers scouting department as a Senior Assistant of Player Personnel, evaluating video and participating in the Steelers draft War Room, which is appropriately titled “The Bill Nunn Draft Room.”

Make no mistake about it, Nunn’s role wasn’t as a figure head or elder statesman, he was an active participant of the Steelers scouting team. In fact, as reported by Andrew Conte of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Nunn suffered his stroke while evaluating players on the South Side.

Kevin Colbert would send young scouts to study film or watch tapes at Nunn’s side. As Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola wrote on steelers.com

Around the Steelers organization, it was no secret that if you sat next to Bill Nunn and kept your mouth shut and your ears open you would walk away knowing more than you did when you first sat down.

For the firs time since 1947, Bill Nunn’s chair will be empty for the Steelers on draft day. His presence will be missed. Steel Curtain Rising offers its sympathy, thoughts and prayers to Nunn’s wife and children.

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2 Lessons Learned from the Steelers 1974 Hall of Fame Draft

Steelers Nation is celebrating Pittsburgh’s 1974 draft this spring as it should. In 1974 the team of Chuck Noll, Art Rooney, Jr., Dick Haley and Bill Nunn authored the best draft in this history of the National Football League.

It’s probably not too much of a stretch for the faithful to do a collective fist pump and channel their inner Brett Hart’s saying,

  • The Steelers 1974 Draft is the best there was, there ever will be!

You earn the right to say that when your team drafts 4 Hall of Famers in the form of Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster.

steelers 1974 draft war room rooney nunn haley
Bill Nunn, Dick Haley, V. Tim Rooney, and Art Rooney Jr.

The stories behind the 1974 draft remain the stuff of legend. Of Art Rooney Jr. scouting Lambert while he practiced on asphalt at Kent State. Bill Nunn’s slight of hand in scouting John Stallworth. These and other yarns will be spun and respun and will again.

Expecting the success of the 1974 draft to be repeated in Pittsburgh or elsewhere simply isn’t realistic. The playing field is far too level now. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t lessons Steelers Nation can take from the 1974 NFL Draft as we move towards the 2014 NFL Draft.

Lesson I – The Fallacy that The Steelers 1974 Hall of Fame Hall Sparked 4 Super Bowls

Alan Robinson’s hardly the only one to make this kind of statement. In fact, many assume it is simply reality. Nonetheless, Robinson’s recent article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review provides a perfect example:

This is the 40th anniversary of the Steelers’ Class of 1974, a 21-member draft class that is the best in NFL history. Of the five Hall of Famers drafted by NFL teams that year, four were Steelers, an unprecedented talent haul that immediately propelled the franchise to four Super Bowl wins in six seasons. (Emphasis added.)

That’s poetic and looking back 40 years later it certainly seems like a true case of cause and effect at work. Except closer examination of the record reveals something else.

Of the four Hall of Famers taken, only Jack Lambert started immediately. The NFL didn’t keep sacks then, but Lambert bagged two interceptions and force a fumble.

Mike Webster started 1 game but appeared in 14, as Chuck Noll worked out a rotation system for Webster and Ray Mansfield. Webby got his time, but it was still Mansfield’s line.

  • As for Lynn Swann and John Stallworth? 

Lynn Swann is listed as starting two games, but recorded all of 11 catches and two touchdowns. Swann contributed on special teams, returning 41 punts for an impressive 14.1 average and one touchdown.

John Stallworth is listed as starting 3 games that year, but still only made 16 catches for 1 touchdown.

Lambert’s contributions were the most important, and roughly analogous to those the Heath Miller made as a rookie in the Steelers run to Super Bowl XL. Webster, Swann and Stallworth did their parts, but paled in comparison to those made by the likes of Joe Greene or Franco Harris, let alone those of Frank Lewis, the team’s number 1 wide out.

  • The bottom line is that fans hoping for salvation via the 2014 should temper expectations

A strong rookie class can boosts but does not transform a contender into a champion.

Lesson II:  Beware of Paralysis by Analysis

Post-draft day grades and evaluations are about as useful as MLB batting averages on April 15th — papers are almost obligated to publish the number, but come late September no one will care. Nonetheless, the rush to be the first to declare a “winner” to the draft after the last selection is called has accelerated to inane levels in the age of the internet.

  • But such paralysis by analysis is hardly something born in the digital age.

In his self-titled autobiography Dan Rooney shared this bit of instant analysis published after Day 1 of the 1974 NFL Draft:

The Steelers seem to have come out of the first five rounds of the draft appreciably strengthened at wide receiver but nowhere else. They didn’t get a tight end, and the ones remaining are more suspect than prospect. They didn’t get a punter, although none of the nation’s best collegiate kickers weren’t in the first five rounds. They didn’t get an offensive tackle that might’ve shored up what could well become a weakness. What they did get was Swann, who seems to be a sure-pop to help; Lambert, who figures to be the number-5 linebacker if he pans out; and three question marks.

The rush to judgment after a draft is only human. But the Steelers had just taken 4 future Hall of Famers, and the columnist from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was miffed because they didn’t take a punter.

None of this will or should stop professional writers and bloggers from analyzing the 2014 NFL Draft. But lesson of the Steelers 1974 Draft is that such instant draft analysis must be taken with several healthy shakes of the salt shaker.

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