Draft Review: Troy Polamalu

Off the Southern Cal assembly line for safeties

GOSSELIN DRAFT ANALYSIS: Troy Polamalu rushed for 1,040 yards and 22 touchdowns as a junior at Winston Douglas High School (Oregon) but played only four games as a senior because of injuries — a bruised kidney, sprained shoulder and torn back muscles. He spent his freshman season at Southern Cal as a backup linebacker and safety, then started for three seasons at strong safety. He was a two-year captain, two-time All-Pac 12, two-time All-America and a Thorpe Award finalist. Polamalu intercepted only six career passes for the Trojans but returned three of them for touchdowns. He also blocked four punts in 2001. He was slowed by a sprained ankle in the second half of his senior season but still finished the year with 98 tackles. A knee injury forced Polamalu to miss both the Senior Bowl and the NFL combine. He measured a shade over 5-10 and 206 pounds at Southern Cal’s pro day and turned in a blistering 4.33 40-yard dash. He also charted a vertical jump of 43 ½ inches and threw up the bench press (225 pounds) 25 times. Gosselin placed him No. 19 on his Top 100 board and the Steelers selected him with the 16th overall pick of the 2003 NFL draft in a rare franchise trade up with Kansas City.

Here are comments on Polamalu from 19 talent evaluators leading up to his draft:

Scout: Sudden, like Darren Woodson. Blows you up but lacks the coverage skills of Woodson.

Scout II: Great acceleration but an inconsistent tackler. Takes some bad angles. Late 1 but could go higher. Quality kid who loves the game. He warmed up against Iowa (Orange Bowl, his final college game) but then didn’t play because of a knee injury. He also had some ankle issues during the season. I question his durability because he’s so physically tight. Not real flexible.

Scout III: Smart. Tough box safety that lacks the range of (Ohio State’s Michael) Doss.

Defensive backfield coach: Better than Doss – bigger, sturdier and knows how to get to the ball. The biggest difference between the two is their motors.

Defensive backfield coach II: Plays hard and will break his little body up. A little guy playing in a big man’s league. I question his change of direction. No fluidity.

Defensive coordinator III: I like him but he faces a learning curve. Quicker than (Adam) Archuleta (Arizona State safety who went 20th overall in the 2001 draft).

Defensive coordinator IV: (concerning concussions) You don’t get concussions leading with your ass.

Personnel director: Quality kid.

Personnel director II: Our No. 1 safety without a doubt.

Personnel director III: Has the speed and athleticism to play the deep part of the field but he can’t play the deep part of the field. He’s exciting to watch, though.

Personnel director IV: Our #1 safety.

General manager: Unguided missile. Misses a lot.

General manager II: Perfect safety for the 46 defense. A Blaine Bishop type – runs fast and plays tough and hard.

General manager III: Medical concerns – and as reckless as he plays, he’s going to get hurt.

General manager IV: Our #1 safety.

General manager V: He knows what it takes to play at this level.

General manager VI: He’s getting killed on the medicals with his concussions. If he drops severely (in this draft), that’s why.

General manager VII: His height scares me. He’s (Adam) Archuleta…but when he gets stuck in pass coverage he’s not that good. Short-armed guy who misses too many tackles. But I’d love to have him on our special teams.

Head coach: I like him but he’s going to kill himself. He’s going to be a physical wreck in this league.

Head coach II: Can he stay healthy at this level?

HALL OF FAME RESUME: Some of the scouts were right – there was a learning curve. Polamalu didn’t start a single game in his rookie season, playing primarily on special teams. But when Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau arrived as defensive coordinator in 2004, Polamalu’s career took off. He went to the first of his eight Pro Bowls that season on the strength of his 96 tackles and five interceptions. He was voted to the 2000 NFL all-decade team and also was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2010 when he collected 63 tackles and seven interceptions for the AFC champions. Polamalu helped the Steelers win NFL championships in 2005 and 2008, setting his career high with seven interceptions in that 2008 season. But scouts who questioned his ability to stay healthy also were right. Polamalu managed to play all 16 games in only five of his 12 seasons, missing 34 games total because of injuries. He retired following the 2014 season with 738 career tackles, 32 interceptions, 12 sacks, seven fumble recoveries and five career touchdowns on takeaways. He was named to the all-time Steelers team in 2007 and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2020. Polamalu chose LeBeau, by the way, to be his presenter at his Hall of Fame induction.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Rick Gosselin spent 20 years as the NFL columnist for the Dallas Morning News, including 20 offseasons studying and researching prospects for the NFL draft. He didn’t watch any tape – he was a writer, not a scout – but he talked to the men who did watch tape. He built a network of NFL general managers, head coaches, personnel directors, scouts and assistant coaches from all 32 teams who would share with him their analyses of players. Gosselin used their insights to build his own draft board, Top 100 board and mock drafts. For 10 consecutive years he had the best Top 100 board in the country (2001-10), according to the Huddle Report, and three times he produced the best mock draft. Gosselin resurrected his college scouting reports here for a look back at how NFL talent evaluators viewed the top draft prospects coming out of college.

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