The free safety position in Pittsburgh was made famous in 2007 because of a guarantee. Going into 2008, the position makes no promises.
Because of that lack of security, the Steelers might look into slightly disregarding their longstanding guideline of not bringing in players with character concerns.
Former Vikings safety Dwight Smith played under Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin in Tampa Bay when Tomlin was the Buccaneers' secondary coach. Despite two run-ins with Minneapolis Police (once for lewd sexual conduct in a stairwell outside of a night club, the other for marijuana possession in his car, which was recently dropped), Smith was a solid veteran when in Minnesota. In addition, he was brought there by Tomlin when he was the Vikings' defensive coordinator. Smith has eight interceptions over the past two seasons, and was a solid contributor on one of the league's best all-around defenses.
The Steelers lost Ryan Clark for the second half of last season, and second-year safety Anthony Smith didn't exactly step up in the veteran's absence. He provides a hard-hitting presence in the secondary, but his mental mistakes make the free safety position a concern going into free agency (starting Feb. 29) and April's draft.
Clark suffered an inflamed spleen after the Steelers' 31-28 loss at Denver in Week 7, the result of dehydration and the altitude adjustment, which had adverse effects on a blood condition he has always had. He was placed on the IR and had the spleen removed Nov. 11. While Clark technically cannot be released because he ended the season on injured reserve, his future in the NFL is clearly not assured.
It was a huge loss over the course of the rest of the year, considering the Steelers' secondary was attacked without Clark and the injury of strong safety Troy Polamalu. Smith showed flashes of ability, and it is a bit premature to condemn his entire career based on the guarantee he pledged to the media that Pittsburgh would defeat then-undefeated New England in Week 14.
The Patriots lambasted the Steelers -- Smith in particular -- in the second half en route to a 34-13 victory.
Without Clark, the Steelers look to start Smith at free safety with veteran Tyrone Carter backing him up. Barring the unlikely event that University of Miami stud safety Kenny Phillips falls to the 23rd pick, the Steelers are probably going to go shopping for some depth at that position.
If Phillips is there at 23, though, expect the Steelers to spend about six seconds before sending his name up to the commissioner.
As for Smith, he makes sense because of his history with Tomlin and the simple fact he's been around the league long enough to provide much-needed veteran savvy at the deep safety spot. He defends the run well but isn't as over-aggressive as Smith against the pass. That aggression led to teams finding plenty of opportunities to hit the deep ball off of a double-move.
But Smith's run-ins with the law doomed him in Minnesota, which usually is not something on the resume of a Steelers free-agent signee. He has another few years of ability left in him, and regardless of a checkered past, he's going to be sought after on the free-agent market. Is his development as a pro under Tomlin enough for Smith to take a smaller deal to play in Pittsburgh? Are the Steelers sold enough on his character to pay a veteran as much as Smith will command on the open market? Perhaps the biggest question is the status of Clark.
Breaking it down simply, if Clark is physically unable to play, the Steelers have to bring in a veteran to provide depth at one of their weakest positions. Smith does fit that need.