Looking For One More Smart Safety

T.J. McDonald USC (USA TODAY Sports)

Take a minute to look back at the starting safeties Kevin Colbert has taken out of college since he took over the Steelers' personnel department in 2000:

* Ainsley Battles, the son of a rocket scientist, was a free agent out of Vanderbilt.

* Chris Hope was a two-time first-team Academic All-American before Colbert drafted him in 2002.

* Troy Polamalu scored over 1200 on his SAT in high school and is the conscience of the Steelers' locker room.

* Anthony Smith wasn't much of a scholar, and he did cause the mild-mannered Dick LeBeau to uncharacteristically erupt along the sidelines in 2006.

* Ryan Mundy was drafted out of WVU where he was working on his master's degree.

Those safeties followed in the footsteps of turn-of-the-millennium starters Brent Alexander – who went to college on a presidential academic scholarship – and the loquacious Lee Flowers of Georgia Tech.

The other safeties who've started in Pittsburgh over the last 13 seasons have been cagey veterans such as Mike Logan, Ty Carter, Ryan Clark and Will Allen, who honed their crafts elsewhere before signing as free agents.

The point is: The Steelers like smart safeties.

And they need another one.

Last season's experienced reserves have either left in free agency (Mundy) or are exploring that option (Allen). So behind the 33-year-old Clark and the soon-to-be 32-year-old Polamalu are Damon Cromartie-Smith, Robert Golden and Ross Ventrone, who've combined to make three end-of-season defensive appearances, as reserves, in their careers.

So the Steelers most likely will draft another safety, and we can assume he'll be as smart as a coach's son.

Like T.J. McDonald.

"My dad, he was my head coach in high school. He's been preparing me for this for a long time," McDonald said at the combine. "He wasn't preparing me to be a high school player or a college player; he was trying to teach me how to be a pro from a young age. The relationship I have with him has pushed me to the point that I'm at now. I know I have a responsibility to him, to myself, to my family to be able to go for it all, not to just step my foot in this league, but to be able to go for a career."

If you listen to McDonald talk about his father – former 13-year NFL veteran, 6-time Pro Bowler and 1-time world champion Tim McDonald – you forget that he's viewed as a bit of a disappointment coming out of USC.

Then again, the bar had been set pretty high for someone who appears as if he's been sculpted by the gods to follow in his dad's footsteps as a brutally physical safety. And his dad seems intent on making sure the mental part of the game comes along with his son.

"Until this year my dad used to text me at halftime of games," said T.J. "He'd give me pointers, let me know what was going on. And then even when I was a freshman getting my feet wet, starting in my sophomore year, he'd be at home and we would screen-share on Skype watching film. He'd be able to still coach me up, still yell at me if he needed to.

"He put me in a great situation. He taught me how to watch film. Some guys watch film and they just see a picture. I can see pieces of the puzzle and be able to put it together and be able to understand concepts. That's how I know when I get to the next level that if you put a playbook in front of me I'll know what I'm doing and be able to transfer it to the field."

Tim McDonald coached T.J. (Tim Junior) at Edison High in Fresno – along with Golden ("a quick guy, pretty fast, and a competitor. That's one thing about Robert: He'll compete," said T.J.) – before T.J. followed in his dad's footsteps by going to USC.

McDonald saw time at strong safety as a true freshman before becoming a three-year starter at free safety. He was named second-team Pac-10 as a sophomore, first-team Pac-12 as a junior, but back to second-team Pac-12 after a sluggish senior season.

He intercepted 6 career passes, but is probably more of a box safety. And in an era that's been spread wider and deeper by the passing game, box safeties – no matter how smart – are mid-rounders.

Yet, McDonald's times and measurements compare favorably with those of consensus first-rounder Kenny Vaccaro.

Vaccaro, who turned 23 in January, is 6-0, 213 with 32.6-inch arms and ran a 4.63 40, 1.57 10, 6.78 3-cone and 4.06 short shuttle, with 15 reps, a 38-inch VJ and 10-1 BJ.

McDonald, who turned 22 in January, is 6-2½, 219 with 33.1-inch arms and ran a 4.59 40, 1.53 10, 6.89 3-cone and 4.2 short shuttle, with 19 reps, a 40-inch VJ and 10-11 BJ.

By those numbers, one might assume McDonald is the first-round candidate and Vaccaro the third-rounder.

And we can be certain that McDonald had just as good of a grasp, if not better, of what Dick LeBeau was talking about when the Steelers held formal meetings with both players. After all, McDonald not only had his dad, but he spent the last three seasons at the knee of Mike Tomlin's boss at Tampa Bay, Monte Kiffin.

"I loved playing for Monte Kiffin," T.J. said of his college defensive coordinator. "Monte was awesome to me. I was a sponge to everything he was saying. For the knowledge that he had for the length that he coached in the game, in the NFL, for him to be able to namedrop some of the guys that he coached, it was awesome to be able to soak that up and be able to learn from him and be able to play under him."

When asked by reporters how he would assess himself to the teams that were about to meet with him, McDonald summed himself up this way:

"He's a physical, relentless safety who is smart, watches a lot of film. He's a leader and he loves the game of football.

"That's one thing: I love this game. I was born into this game. You can interview all the guys at this combine, but nobody wants it more than I do."

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