In Shamarko Thomas, the Steelers hope they have found the next Bob Sanders, a compact, powerfully built safety who delivers torpedo-style hits. They hope he is not the next Anthony Smith.
Thomas is a 5-foot-9, 213-pound bundle of speed and unbridled power, and the Steelers thought enough of him to do something they rarely do -- trade away a future draft choice.
And the decision, strangely enough, was based on draft choices they don't have. At least, not right now.
SportsNOW: Pens, Pirates on a roll; Steelers draft boon or bust?
The PG's Dan Gigler, Jerry Micco and Gene Collier talk about the successes of the Penguins and Pirates, then offer report cards on the Steelers' NFL draft results. (Video by Melissa Tkach; 5/2/2013)
"He's not the biggest kid, but he certainly doesn't play that way," general manager Kevin Colbert said. "He leaves it on the field."
The Steelers needed a safety because they have little depth behind Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark after backups Will Allen and Ryan Mundy signed elsewhere in free agency.
In addition, Clark is 34 and Polamalu could be facing the same situation in 2014 that James Harrison did this year if he doesn't have a more significant impact on the defense. Polamalu missed nine games last season because of injuries and finished with just one interception and no forced fumbles or fumble recoveries.
So the Steelers traded their third-round choice in 2014 to the Cleveland Browns to draft Thomas with the 111th overall selection -- four spots ahead of their own fourth-round choice. It was the first time since 1973 the Steelers traded a future draft choice, but they did it because they expect to get third- and fourth-round compensatory picks in 2014 for Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall and Keenan Lewis.
"We viewed him as valuable as a third-round pick would be," Colbert said.
Pitt fans will remember Thomas for his vicious helmet-to-helmet hit on tight end J.P Holtz in a game at the Carrier Dome last season -- a play in which Thomas' helmet went flying off his head and he immediately collapsed to the ground. The play happened in the fourth quarter, and Thomas never returned to the game.
But that is the way he plays.
There were 10 other safeties selected before Thomas, even though he ran the fastest 40-time of any safety at the NFL combine (averaging 4.42 for his two runs). He also had the best vertical jump of any safety (40 1/2 inches) and did 28 reps on the 225-pound bench. That's more than three top first-round draft picks -- defensive ends Ziggy Ansah and Bjoern Werner and inside linebacker Kevin Minter -- did.
Thomas posted his best 40 time at the combine -- 4.38 seconds -- despite stumbling and doing something of a face plant at the end of his first attempt.
"He even hits the ground violently," said secondary coach Carnell Lake.
But, because he is 5-9, Thomas lasted until the 111th overall pick.
The Steelers were going to draft Thomas in the third round, but instead chose wide receiver Markus Wheaton of Oregon State because they felt there was a bigger need at that position. That night, at the end of the draft, Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin decided they were going to trade into a higher spot on the fourth round and take Thomas with their first pick Saturday.
The Steelers were afraid that Thomas' former coach, Doug Marrone, eventually would draft him for his new team, the Buffalo Bills.
This isn't the first time the Steelers have drafted a physical, rock-ribbed safety from Syracuse in the third round.
In 2006, they drafted Smith, a chiseled, hard-hitting safety, with the first of two picks they acquired on the third round from Minnesota. Smith, though, did not endear himself to Tomlin when he guaranteed a win against the Patriots in New England late in 2007 -- a game in which he was beaten twice for long touchdowns in a 34-13 loss.
Thomas has the same torpedo-like tendencies when he tackles, but the Steelers hope he plays with more discipline than Smith -- and doesn't guarantee victories.
Unlike Smith, who was a free safety, Thomas played strong safety with Syracuse. He is the first strong safety from the school to be drafted since Donovin Darius in 1998.
The Steelers likely will use Thomas at free safety because that is the position that calls the defensive backfield signals, something he did at Syracuse.
"I will play anywhere they want me," Thomas said. "I just want to be on the field. I want to help out the Steelers."
But Lake said he could also play in the nickel.
"The great thing about this young man is, if you were in a pinch and you didn't want to put the nickel package out there and you wanted him to play man-to-man on the slot, he could do it," Lake said. "He has done it in big games already against some of the receivers that have been drafted in the first two rounds and he shut them down.
"That is the kind of safety I like. That is the kind of safety the Steelers are looking for. Not only will he cover well, but he will hit you and hit you hard."
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com and Twitter @gerrydulac. First Published May 3, 2013 4:00 AM