Training Camp Battles: Veteranosity vs. Youth

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USA Today Sports

We hear a lot about “camp battles” this time of year. I don’t know that we really think about what this means, from the standpoint of the guys battling, because to do so would in some cases break your heart. But I want to focus on one aspect of the camp battles.

There are many possible types of camp battles, and they aren’t always a matter of veteran status (with the Steelers) vs. rookie. Sometimes it is a group of young ‘uns—this generally happens with the wide receivers. The famous instance of that was Mike Tomlin’s “two dogs one bone” between Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, although it wasn’t a tremendously long time before Tomlin was forced to look for another bone, because both guys earned a spot.

But very frequently camp battles are between a (at least relatively) grizzled veteran and the new kid on the block, and that’s the sort I’m going to focus on here.

There are an even larger number than usual of such battles this year, or so it seems.I am going to be covering them more specifically in subsequent posts. Right now I just want to ponder the whole question of what you might call “old age and treachery vs. youth and enthusiasm.”

It was a recent Tribune-Review article about Robert Golden which started me thinking about this subject. Author Ralph Paulk wrote:

Perhaps one of the Steelers’ more intriguing training camp battles is at safety, where veteran Robert Golden is expected to be pushed by rookie Sean Davis.

Golden, an undrafted free agent in 2012, enters his fifth campaign with a slightly different mindset. A year ago, he began training camp with his role as a special teams contributor clearly defined. He worked his way into the defensive rotation behind Will Allen.

“Just like any other offseason, I trained hard and prepared myself as if I’m going to be the starter,” said Golden, who is vying for a spot alongside fellow safety Mike Mitchell. “Actually, that’s been my mindset since I’ve been here.”

Golden was signed in 2012 as a UDFA and has become a core special teams player. The question in my mind is, does a point come with someone like Golden in which they suddenly take a quantum leap? After all, he managed to stay on the team for four years because he made himself useful on special teams. But apparently no one saw him as a starter, because the Steelers expected Shamarko Thomas to be that guy. When it was finally obvious he wasn’t going to be able to step into that role, rather than play Golden in that spot they signed long-time veteran Will Allen. Only when Allen was injured did they move Golden into that spot, seemingly out of desperation.

He played pretty well, too. But his numbers weren’t exactly Troy-Polamalu-in-his-prime type numbers, which would be unfair to ask. But it is fair to ask how they compared to Mike Mitchell’s in the three games he started:

Golden was the starter for three mid-season games—the games against Arizona, Kansas City, and Cincinnati #1. In those three games here are the comparisons:

Combined tackles (solo + assists): Golden—17, Mitchell—13. Sacks: 0 for both. Passes Defended: Golden—1, Mitchell—3. Interceptions: Golden—0, Mitchell—2. Neither had a forced fumble.

I checked Pro Football Focus, and they had Mitchell listed as the 24th best safety (out of 89 ranked). So it seems to me it’s a fair comparison, as Mitchell is quite a reasonable safety, but not at the Earl Thomas level. Golden was ranked 45th.

I sorted the players by team and it was interesting to see how few teams have two highly-ranked safeties. Denver had two guys in the top twenty. Green Bay had the No. 8 and the No. 4. Kansas City had two in the top 20, New England two in the top ten, and Seattle two in the top twenty. The rest of us seem to have to bump along with one good safety and one decent one. (A few teams didn’t even have one decent one.) We didn’t know how blest we were when Troy and Ryan Clark were at their apex.

So in other words it probably wouldn’t be a disaster if last season’s Robert Golden was the starter this year, but there’s a lot of room for improvement at that spot. This improvement could either be in Golden himself, or with another player. Sean Davis is gunning for the slot, of course, and it will be interesting to see how quickly he progresses.

By my overall point is, just how much is “veteranosity” worth to you? What is it that a veteran brings to the table? A proven track record, for one thing. And the assurance that while they might not be fabulous they won’t totally mess you up with a completely bone-headed move either (although everyone has bad days.)

The word on Shamarko Thomas was that he had all of the physical tools to be the safety of the future. Mike Tomlin told a reporter last season that the problem was “above the neck,” and apparently Thomas was never able to reliably be where he was supposed to. This is, of course, a big problem. You’re always going to go with someone less gifted if they can be relied on. There is a level of trust which takes time and familiarity to develop.

Interestingly, although PFF didn’t rank Thomas, his rating would have put him at the upper end of the lower third of the league. In other words, there were plenty of guys getting a lot of playing time who were substantially worse. What we don’t know, of course, is whether more playing time would have just exposed him even more, and his rating would have been even lower, or whether more playing time would have helped him to break through whatever was holding him back. Clearly the coaches weren’t willing to take that risk.

This question—how much consideration does veteran status buy you—is a critical one, clearly. There is a real danger of continually getting older, much as the Steelers D did after the 2010 Super Bowl, because the Steelers were reluctant to throw the young ones in to sink or swim while they had trusted (and in many cases highly-compensated) veterans in those positions—trusted veterans who, alas, were gradually getting older and slower. Ideally you would always have a new guy ready to take over the spot when the incumbent shows signs of flagging, but it doesn’t seem to work out that way very often. Or not often enough, anyhow.

So perhaps the camp battles, at least in the less clear-cut cases, come down to trust.

This isn’t always the case, but generally in those cases the trust factor is relatively equal. Had there been the scheduled battle at kicker this summer, for instance, and had, for the sake of argument, both Shaun Suisham and Chris Boswell kicked equally well, the decision would almost certainly have come down to money and potential years. In other words, Shaun Suisham would probably have lost, because he was more expensive and older.

But in the case of someone like Robert Golden, the equation gets much more interesting. He’s still a great special teams guy, so you’re probably not going to cut him even if you decide to go with Davis. You have more invested in Davis as a second-round pick (vs. a UDFA), so there’s that. But they have more invested in Shamarko Thomas, too—not just the 2013 fourth-round pick they took him with, but the 2014 third-round pick they used to trade up.

However, they have apparently given up on Thomas, and see Davis as the future at that position. Robert Golden would have to show them a whole lot more than he may be capable of to be seen as anything other than a stopgap.

Or is this correct? I return to the original question—is it reasonable to assume that someone would suddenly, mid-career (presumably), move to an entirely different level of play than he has heretofore shown? Certainly it can happen, but it seems to me this is usually in a case where someone has the physical tools but hasn’t previously put it all together. Some folks are just slower learners, or they may have struggled with injuries or lack of opportunities or what have you. But, as they say, you can’t teach speed.

Speed can be wasted if it isn’t utilized properly, and a certain amount of intelligent play can compensate somewhat for the lack of it, but we only have to look at what happened to Troy’s numbers when he lost the speed upon which he had always relied. He was just as smart and instinctive as he ever was—he just didn’t have the tools to support it.

I’m not saying Golden is slow. That is just an instance of one of the coveted attributes which can be conspicuous by their absence. Generally there is a reason guys aren’t drafted, besides character concerns—lack of size, strength, speed, and so on. Some are fixable, many are not.

Perhaps Golden himself ultimately answered the question as to why he was the starter when Allen went down. Last fall, after his start against Arizona, he told Ralph Paulk:

“Shamarko is a great athlete, but I guess the coaches find a little more comfort in me,” Golden said. “I’ve been around a little longer, and that probably explains why.”

Given the great influx of new guys in the secondary (and elsewhere) the coaches may have to move a bit out of their comfort zone. Which is a good thing for all of us on occasion.

And may the best man win.

10 comments

  • One extra benefit of playing vets is the spur it gives to younger players. “If you want more snaps, you need to outperform the guys who are now on the field. Simply tying isn’t going to do…”

    It’s that whole coaching thing. Sometimes it calls for approaches that differ a bit from pure management.

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    • Great point. And I expect that sort of thing gets said a lot. I just ran across a quote from an interview with Mike Mitchell, who said in effect one thing he likes about Tomlin is he tells it how it is. The example he gave was Jordan Zumwalt, who Tomlin addressed recently as “Money Pit,” saying that money was flowing in and he (Tomlin) hadn’t gotten anything for it so far…

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  • HawaiianSteeler86

    Coach Tomlin has a certain way about him. “Money Pit”, what at terrible name for one of his players. Yet it conveys to that player the truth of his current circumstance with the team.

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    • I gather Tomlin has been calling Brandon Brown-Dukes, the tiny RB from Mercyhurst, “Hypen Mercyhurst.” After a couple of impressive showings in backs-on-backers Tomlin said “I’m going to start calling him by his name now.”

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  • I don’t think Tomlin would view anyone as a stop-gap starter. (not complaining, just felt the need to put in my thoughts)

    Golden has a chance to earn the job, and I bet (from the status of the competition) he earns it.
    At that point he’s the best player at that spot, and while the Steelers’ constantly look at each position and try to acquire talent that can improve their position the most, That player also has to earn it. I doubt Tomlin engages in thinking about when Sean Davis will take Robert Golden’s job, I bet you he thinks a lot about the best ways to help them grow and let them compete.

    Robert Golden will start every week he is the best player at his position. We’ll see how many weeks he can hold the reigns.

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