Carnell Lake wasn’t afraid to raise the bar of expectation on the most exciting Steelers pick of the second day of the NFL draft.
Lake, the Steelers’ secondary coach, was asked if Shamarko Thomas – his new safety – is Bob Sanders Lite.
“He is,” Lake said of the Steelers’ fourth-round draft pick. “Shamarko’s an outstanding football player. I think if he had two more inches he’d have been in the first round, in my opinion. That’s how highly I think of this young man.”
Thomas stands only an eighth of an inch below 5 feet 9 inches. And at 5-8.7, 213 pounds, Thomas had a vertical jump of 40½ inches and ran a 4.42 40 at the combine, in spite of tripping and falling face first across the finish line.
That scene typified the strong safety’s playing style at Syracuse, where his size, speed and kamikaze approach naturally brought about the comparison to Sanders (5-8.3, 204), the former two-time All-Pro who was the 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year for the Indianapolis Colts.
The Steelers considered drafting Thomas in the third round Friday, but opted instead to trade next year’s third-round pick to the Cleveland Browns for the right to draft Thomas in the fourth round this year. The Steelers cited an expected third-round compensatory pick next year as the basis for the deal.
“He has the size, he has speed, and he has strength,” gushed an enthusiastic Lake. “He is very aware on the field. Not only can he play safety, but he can also get up there and play man-to-man on the slot receiver. He has played nickel and he has played corner at times. He is a very versatile defensive back. I think he is not only going to do well for our secondary, but I think he is going to do well for the special teams.”
Thomas was the proverbial heat-seeking missile as a four-year starting strong safety at Syracuse. He led his team last season with 88 tackles and 3 forced fumbles, and also had 2 interceptions and a fumble recovery.
Lake was particularly impressed by Thomas’s performance last season in an upset win over USC.
“When I was watching film on Shamarko, he was in the nickel position covering Robert Woods, who was drafted in the second round,”
Lake said as he relayed his conversation with Thomas.
“I said, ‘Well how come you were out wide playing Woods at the corner position? Did you play corner?’ He said, ‘No, it was still the nickel but our coaching staff wanted me to match up wherever he went.’ And I thought that was really impressive. Why would you have your strong safety covering one of the better receivers in the draft man-to-man throughout the whole game? Woods had a very hard time getting off the jam with this kid. Not only that, but Shamarko went on and picked it one time when Woods ran down the seam. For me, that was almost a game-changer. Sealed the deal, in my opinion.”
Lake said Thomas’s vertical jump (which tied for the DB high at the combine) negates any potential size disadvantage. Lake also is unconcerned about Thomas’s concussion history, a residue of the player’s hard-hitting style.
“They haven’t been an issue with the medical staff,” Lake said. “As you know, our safeties that are currently playing on our team have had issues. It comes with the territory back there because of the distances and the speed at which these guys play. I don’t see it as an issue. He’s not a head-hunter, per se. He just makes good, strong tackles. When you watch him, he’s wrapping up with his arms and his shoulders so I do like that part about it.”
With their original fourth-round pick, the Steelers chose Landry Jones, the Oklahoma quarterback who threw for 16,646 yards and 123 touchdowns, both Big 12 Conference career records. Jones’ yardage total ranks third all-time in NCAA history behind Case Keenum and Timmy Chang.
Landry is 6-4¼, 225 pounds with decent mobility (5.11 40) and a 39-11 record in 50 career starts. He’s been criticized for poor performances in big games, but his .780 win percentage at Oklahoma is close to coach Bob Stoops’ .809 win percentage with all other Oklahoma quarterbacks.
“He’s a guy that still has a lot of upside,” said Steelers QB coach Randy Fichtner. “He played in the system that is basically one-back. He knows the system very well. He’s been easily adaptable in meetings that I’ve spent with him, so he can understand the pro game. That’s going to be exciting.”
Lake was handed another upside-oriented defensive back in the fifth round when the Steelers drafted Illinois cornerback Terry Hawthorne (5-11¾, 195).
The Defensive MVP of his team’s 2011 Kraft Hunger Bowl, Hawthorne entered the 2012 season as a highly regarded prospect before tailing off his senior year. He has 6 career interceptions, supports the run aggressively, returns punts (21.2 ypr. last season), some kickoffs, and ran his 40 in the low 4.4s.
“I guess my stock just dropped,” said Hawthorne, who was asked if that gave him a chip on his shoulder.
“Of course I have a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I thought I was better than the fifth round.”
“If there’s anything I can help him with it will probably be his technique,” said Lake, who compared Hawthorne’s press-coverage skills to those of Ike Taylor.
“I think he has maybe got himself a little bit out of position and it’s partly due to some of the things that I saw with him that I can help clean up,” Lake said. “Right now, he is just raw.”
With two picks in the sixth round, the Steelers chose Oklahoma WR Justin Brown and Florida State ILB Vince Williams.
Brown is listed by the Steelers at 6-3, 209 and runs the 40 in the high 4.5s. A native of Wilmington, Delaware, Brown caught 73 passes at Penn State and another 73 after transferring last year to Oklahoma. He’s projected to “the strong side” by new Steelers WRs coach Richard Mann.
“He’s a big guy,” Mann said. “One year (at Oklahoma), very productive; that tells you something about the guy. I think he’s got good toughness and that’s part of being a good receiver. He’ll lock up downfield and I think that’s part of it also. He’s a good receiver. Can catch the football. Big target.”
Williams was the signal-caller as the middle linebacker for the Florida State defense. At 6-1, 250 he’s a run-game thumper who started the last two seasons at FSU. Last year Williams finished fourth on his team with 59 tackles and had 6½ tackles for loss. He was one of the team captains and was given the Leadership Award for defense.
The drafting of Williams indicates the Steelers are moving on without Sean Spence, last year’s third-round pick who suffered a gruesome knee injury last preseason.
“It would be miraculous if he recovers,” said Steelers LBs coach Kevin Butler, who added that “we’re going to ride with him another year I think. Hopefully his knee will respond and he can play again.”
The Steelers drafted another Williams in the seventh round, Nick Williams (6-4, 317), a defensive end out of Samford. Steelers DL coach John Mitchell compared Williams to Steve McLendon when McLendon was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Troy.
“Pat Sullivan, the ex-Heisman Trophy winner, is the head coach (at Samford),” said Mitchell. “Pat Sullivan had talked to me about this kid for about the last year. He is a guy that we have had our eye on for a good while.”
Williams was a basketball star in high school and began playing football as a senior. He added 75 pounds since he arrived at Samford and said “I can put on as much weight as I have to.”
“He’s not going to come in here and replace anybody,” Mitchell said. “He is probably not going to play. He is a project, but you can’t get guys that are 6-4, 320 pounds that can run.”