Steelers should hope Davis isn’t the next Thomas or Smith

Nov 14, 2015; East Lansing, MI, USA; Maryland Terrapins defensive back Sean Davis (21) runs with the ball after intercepting Michigan State Spartans quarterback Tyler O
Nov 14, 2015; East Lansing, MI, USA; Maryland Terrapins defensive back Sean Davis (21) runs with the ball after intercepting Michigan State Spartans quarterback Tyler O /

The Steelers selected speedy safety Sean Davis out of Maryland with their 2nd pick in the 2016 draft.

With Mike Mitchell firmly entrenched as the starter at free safety, Robert Golden having proven his value as more than a special teamer, and the potential switch to safety by Doran Grant (last year’s fourth round pick), the Steelers would appear to have some new options at the position to help improve the 30th ranked pass defense from last year.

One player who appears lost in the shuffle is Shamarko Thomas.

It was approximately one year ago that Thomas was expected to slide into the strong safety spot vacated by Troy Polamalu. It was also expected that, in doing so, he would fulfill the expectations that prompted the team to trade a 2014 third round pick to Cleveland to move up in the fourth round of the ’13 draft and select him.

However, as the pre-season progressed, it was clear that Thomas was having trouble. This was most evident during the team’s pre-season finale against Carolina in which Thomas took a bad angle on a 49-yard TD run.

The coaching staff relegated Thomas to special teams, placing him behind 33-year old Will Allen and, eventually, behind Robert Golden who took over as the top backup at both safety positions. Mike Tomlin’s analysis of Thomas was that, “He’s got to be good above the neck, he’s got to be in a position to make plays and he’s got to be good at communication.” 

He’s got to be good above the neck, he’s got to be in a position to make plays and he’s got to be good at communication.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement to say the least.

It’s been a disappointing career thus far for the former Syracuse stand out. It’s also eerily reminiscent of another past Syracuse star that the Steelers once valued very highly:

Anthony Smith. Remember him?

Smith was drafted in 2006 in the 3rd round. A heavy hitter with speed and a penchant for splash plays, Smith was expected to battle with Ryan Clark for the starting spot at free safety. His early career was promising, as Smith netted 22 tackles and two interceptions playing in a reserve role during his rookie season. He started 10 games the following season and grabbed two more picks.

But then came the moment that made Smith infamous-he guaranteed a victory over the undefeated New England Patriots before a 2007 contest. He then proceeded to get torched by Tom Brady multiple times as the Patriots offense rang up 399 passing yards.

Following the game, Bill Belichick remarked, “We’ve played against a lot better safeties than him, I’ll tell you.”

Smith never recovered from that debacle. His play continued to decline. He was eventually benched and then finally released following the 2008 season. He played for Jacksonville, St. Louis, Green Bay, and Tennessee until finally retiring at age 28 following the 2011 season.

Is there just something about the Steelers and safeties from Syracuse? Perhaps. Maybe there’s something about how the Steelers groom them. There are a number of possibilities. The question now is whether newcomer Sean Davis will follow the same path as Thomas and Smith. Hopefully not.

Here’s a comparison of Thomas’ and Davis’ draft profiles:


Strengths: “Thomas pops off of the screen because of his range, closing speed and hitting ability. He is a fast, decisive, physical presence on the field, and he makes a lot of plays near the line of scrimmage…He can blitz and cover slot receivers one-on-one with effective press coverage…He gets low and moves like a linebacker one-on-one…and routinely blows up screen passes.”

Weaknesses: “‘Reckless’ and ‘out of control’…He’ll take poor angles and miss tackles because he puts his head down or leads with his shoulder to make a big hit. His overaggressive nature causes him to be shaken easily in the open field. Thomas bites on moves in coverage and will struggle in man-to-man coverage.”


Strengths: “Big, broad frame with absolutely shredded physique. Showed mental toughness…Has size to battle against move tight ends. Leaps and challenges aggressively on 50/50 throws…Comes firing downhill with purpose when it is time to get help against the run. Looks to lay the wood to receivers and make them feel it.”

Weaknesses: “At times, was disastrous in man coverage…Slow, upright backpedal and clunky when turning to run…Flagged for four pass interferences, a late hit and a personal foul this year…Missed tackle numbers are troubling with 40 over last three years. Allows too much separation and can’t click and close on throws.”

To break this down simply, both players are quite gifted physically, but their overaggressive nature leads to too many missed tackles. This suggests that each relies too heavily upon his physical skills and needs to be more intelligent and technically sound. Mike Tomlin’s comment about Thomas’ issues “above the neck” resonate even more with that in mind.

Next: Did the Bengals fall for a Steelers smokescreen?

Will Sean Davis be another Thomas or Anthony Smith-tremendously talented players who can’t quite put it together mentally?

As Steelers minicamp begins, only time will tell.