Pittsburgh’s Goin’ to the Super Bowl, Part 2: Cornering the Market

imageAs promised in Part 1,  we will look at one position group per post to assess where the Steelers currently stand. As you can probably guess from my title, I’m beginning with the cornerbacks.

This has been a position of need for years. Steeler Nation has decried, year after year, the lack of a high-round pick being spent upon the secondary, and in particular on the corners. It was not always thus, but it’s been a long time since the last high-round pick was spent on a corner—all the way back to 2015.

Oh, wait, betcha forgot about Senquez Golson, didn’t you? Unless, of course, you’ve remembered him for the purposes of pointing out how poorly Kevin Colbert does in the second round.

I do have to admit that there was a period in which Colbert’s record in the second round looked pretty bad. Just to depress us, here’s the tally. (I didn’t include the 2000 draft because Colbert was a new hire at that point:)

  • 2001: Kendrell Bell
  • 2002: Antwaan Randle El
  • 2003: Alonzo Jackson
  • 2004: Riccardo Colclough
  • 2005: Bryant McFadden
  • 2006: no second round pick
  • 2007: Lamarr Woodley
  • 2008:Limas Sweed
  • 2009: no second round pick
  • 2010: Jason Worilds
  • 2011: Marcus Gilbert
  • 2012: Mike Adams
  • 2013: Le’Veon Bell
  • 2014: Stephon Tuitt
  • 2015: Senquez Golson
  • 2016: Sean Davis

In 2006 the Steelers didn’t have a second round pick because they traded down. They picked up Willie Reid and Anthony Smith. In 2009 they did the same thing and got Mike Wallace and Kraig Urbik. So those players need to be credited (or charged, depending on how you look at it) to the second round.

As you can see, the results are pretty mixed. If you divide the group in half, though, it seems clear that the second round wasn’t particularly kind to the Steelers prior to 2010, and has improved a good deal since then. Lamarr Woodley way out-played his rookie contract, although he was a disappointment thereafter. Randle El, Bell, and McFadden can be viewed as successes, I think, although Bell’s career in Pittsburgh was pretty brief, shortened as it was by injury. Making the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year carries a lot of weight. Randle El and McFadden were both solid players. Enough said about the others. So that’s a couple of guys who were genuine stars, even if for a relatively brief period of time, two guys who were very solid players for a good amount of time, a trade which produced a fairly good (although short-lived) player [Smith] and pretty much a bust [Reid,] and three misses.

If you look at the next eight years, you have a bit more difficulty assessing the picks, because some of them are too recent. But you have at least one and possibly up to four stars (Bell, Gilbert, Tuitt, and Davis), somewhat of a disappointment, (Worilds) although I think he was a better player than many want to admit, a bust (Adams,) and a big unknown who is trending towards being a bust (Golson.) There was also a trade that produced another short-lived superstar (Wallace) and a bust, at least from the Steelers’ standpoint, Kraig Urbik.

So while it’s early to be assessing this half of the Colbert era, the indicators are that the Steelers either got luckier or better as they went along. But for the purposes of this post, how many of these, and their first-and-third-round brethren, were defensive backs, and even more to the point, how many were corners? Let’s take Rounds 1-3 as indicating a serious investment—given how often the Steelers picked in the lower reaches of each round during these years, it seems fair to me to not consider the fourth round. During the Kevin Colbert years the Steelers have drafted the following defensive backs (with corners in bold) in the third round or above:

  • 2002: Chris Hope [3:94]
  • 2003: Troy Polamalu  [1:16]
  • 2004: Ricardo Colclough [2:38]
  • 2005: Bryant McFadden [2:62]
  • 2006: Anthony Smith [3:83]
  • 2009: Keenan Lewis [3:96]
  • 2011: Curtis Brown [3:95]
  • 2015: Senquez Golson [2:56]
  • 2016: Artie Burns [1:25], Sean Davis [2:58]

Although there are a lot of years in which no DB was taken in the first three rounds, the Steelers have picked at least one DB higher than the sixth round in every year except for 2001 (no DBs were chosen,) 2008 (Ryan Mundy was picked in the sixth round,) and 2012 (Terrence Frederick was picked in the seventh round.)

So the Steelers have definitely put some assets into the defensive backfield, but they haven’t as much to show for it as one might like. The question has been asked many times as to how the Steelers can be such terrific evaluators of wide receiver talent, at least in recent years, and such poor ones in the defensive equivalent of DB.

Between the free-agency pickup of Ross Cockrell and the drafting of Artie Burns, the outside corners look faster and potentially better than they have in a while. But there are still problems. As noted in my overview, unless William Gay had an undisclosed injury which was slowing him waayyy down, he may be at the end of his career. Which makes me sad. William Gay was the Steelers’ best corner for much of the year, and he has always been more than a solid citizen—he’s one of the good guys, with a long history of community service, particularly in the area of prevention of domestic violence.

But let’s assume the Steelers need a slot corner. Last year this time the assumption was this would be Senquez Golson. But a foot injury is no picnic for anyone and is potentially a career-changer for a defensive back. Kevin Colbert more or less said as much in his “state of the Steelers’ address to the media a week ago or so. So it seems almost certain the Steelers will target a cornerback pretty early in the draft.

And as we all know, it’s nice to have a great group of putative starters, but unless you have some quality depth you can be in hot water fast if somebody goes down. And right now there isn’t a lot of depth. One of the “depth” guys, Justin Gilbert, was released a few weeks ago. The presumption is that the Steelers didn’t have any more luck with him than the Browns did. (One of the Post-Gazette beat writers has pointed out, however, that it could have been a salary-related move, and the Steelers are free to re-sign him at a better price. It will be interesting to see if they try to do so.)

They have picked up a few free agents, of the sort you pick up right at the end of the season. That sort are generally free for a reason, but that said, here are the guys they’ve gotten:

  • Al-Hajj Shabazz (Shabazz was on the 2016 practice squad and was even promoted to the active roster. He was waived and re-signed a couple of times, spent a few weeks with the Texans, and is back. If he goes on this way he’s going to rival Ross Ventrone (who I really wish was still a Steeler…)
  • Brandon Dixon, Mike Hilton—both on the 2016 practice squad
  • Devonte Johnson—picked up last season as a UDFA by Atlanta, cut after the pre-season
  • Greg Ducre—signed as a UDFA in 2014 by San Diego, on and off various practice squads and the CFL, and now a Steeler

In other words, not terribly encouraging.

Mike Tomlin noted that the Steelers prefer to shop in their own roster rather than looking for outside help, which is Tomlin-speak for “We’re not going to sign a big-name free agent.” The question is, are there even big-name free agent corners on the market, regardless of price?

Here are Walter Football’s top ten free agents, with their commentary:

  • Malcolm Butler (RFA), CB, Patriots. Age: 27  Malcolm Butler went from being an undrafted free agent out of West Alabama, to an unknown guy who made a huge play in a Super Bowl, to one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. His transformation has been amazing, and he’s only 27 in March. He deserves a huge contract.
  • A.J. Bouye, CB, Texans. Age: 26  A.J. Bouye came out of nowhere to have a Pro Bowl season for the Texans. Bouye was just a reserve/special-teamer prior to 2016, but he inexplicably turned into a shutdown cornerback. I’m hesitant to give him anything more than four stars because he could be a one-year wonder, but Bouye is set to earn a big contract this offseason.
  • Trumaine Johnson, CB, Rams. Age: 27  Trumaine Johnson is an excellent cornerback who has about four more years remaining in his prime, given that he just turned 27. Johnson struggles to tackle, but he’s phenomenal as a cover cornerback.
  •  Logan Ryan, CB, Patriots. Age: 26  Logan Ryan struggled to start the 2016 campaign, but bounced back and performed on a very high level once again down the stretch. Ryan has been great the past two years, and he’s only 26 in February, so he should be able to play well for quite a while.
  •  Stephon Gilmore, CB, Bills. Age: 26.  Stephon Gilmore had been an excellent cornerback heading into 2016, but he struggled last year. It’s unclear why he regressed, but it’s likely that he’ll rebound. He’s only 26, so it’s not like he has a declining skill set, or anything.
  • Prince Amukamara, CB, Jaguars. Age: 28  Prince Amukamara signed a 1-year “prove it” deal with the Jaguars last offseason. Prove himself he did, as Amukamara missed just a couple of games. He performed on a high level in 2016 and is certainly worthy of a substantial contract.
  •  Morris Claiborne, CB, Cowboys. Age: 27  It’s almost crazy to recall that Morris Claiborne was considered a colossal bust prior to this past season. Claiborne had done nothing but suck since being chosen sixth overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, but he performed like a shutdown corner this past season before getting hurt. Was that because he was in his contract year, though? Will he stink again if he signs a big deal? Teams thinking about giving Claiborne a ton of money need to be concerned about this.
  • Deshawn Shead (RFA), CB, Seahawks. Age: 29.  The Seahawks needed a No. 2 cornerback after losing Byron Maxwell, and Deshawn Shead stepped up. Shead was terrific in 2016. However, it’s unknown how the 6-foot-2 Shead would fare outside of Seattle’s system.
  • Ross Cockrell, CB, Steelers. Age: 26  The Bills selected Ross Cockrell in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. They cut him, and the Steelers were able to greatly benefit, as Cockrell has been a very solid starter for them over the past couple of seasons. He turns only 26 in August, so he could continue to improve his game. 
  • Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Bengals. Age: 27  Dre Kirkpatrick has been a disappointment for most of his career, but he finally performed on a high level in 2016. Kirkpatrick certainly has the talent to keep playing well, and he’s only 27.

The question is, as always, how many of these guys will actually make it to free agency? It seems highly unlikely that No. 9, Ross Cockrell, will do so. But I have to admit to being surprised and a bit dismayed that he isn’t securely in the fold. Cockrell is a restricted free agent, so even if the Steelers make him an offer (which they will surely do) he can negotiate with other teams.

But to return to the other potential free agent signings, the Steelers are not really in a position to drop a bunch of money on a high-priced free agent corner. They are trying to sign Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, not to mention Lawrence Timmons, Ross Cockrell, et al. The Steelers are almost certainly not going to be in the running for the Morris Claibornes and Malcom Butlers, even if their own teams don’t re-sign them.

Which takes us back to the draft. Fortunately the draft this year is supposed to be rich in good DBs. I would anticipate the Steelers drafting at least two and maybe more of them, one at least relatively high up. I’m guessing they would prefer to take an OLB first, but if a better corner than OLB is available would go for the DB.

There’s another intriguing possibility, though. I was struck by the C.J. Goodwin-to-cornerback in Atlanta. Goodwin is a guy a few of us liked in camp, back in 2014, and he made the 2014 practice squad. One thing I didn’t know about Goodwin was that the Steelers gave him a try-out because Mel Blount asked them to. It seems that members of his family volunteered at Blount’s youth home, and Blount hired Goodwin to cut the grass when he was a kid.

He was back in camp in 2015, but the Steelers, to no one’s surprise, waived him at the end of the pre-season. He was then out of football until the Falcons picked him up last January. During training camp they decided to switch him from a receiver to a cornerback, and so C.J. Goodwin was not only on the Super Bowl roster but made enough plays for the commentators to mention his position change.

Bob Labriola, who writes for Steelers.com, fields questions from fans for his “Asked and Answered” series. One of the questions he hates the most is “Why don’t the Steelers move [player X] from [position X] to [position Y]?” One of the ones which got asked constantly for a while was about moving Ryan Shazier to safety, but there have been others. I’m not sure, however, that anyone ever had the temerity to ask Labriola, who treats such suggestions with asperity at best and downright annoyance at worst, whether a player should be moved from the offense to the defense.

And yet the Falcons did so, and successfully enough that he made the roster. Goodwin never, at least from high school on, played any position but wide receiver. And yet the Falcons were able to turn him into a more-than-competent cornerback over the course of a few weeks. And although he may have been playing mostly special teams, he only missed two games during the season (I’m guessing because of injury, because they were slotted in between games in which he played.) He is even listed as the starter in a game in December. However, this was on NFL.com, but since they had him listed as a wide receiver, it’s hard to put much credence into their figures. He is properly listed as a corner on ESPN, however.

So, to return to Mike Tomlin’s comments about liking to shop among their own roster, perhaps the Steelers should be looking in the wide receiver room for help. Not but what the receiver room is a bit frayed around the edges at the moment. But perhaps, for instance, Sammie Coates, with his elite speed, his special teams experience, and his Ike Taylor-ish hands, would be a candidate, especially if Martavis Bryant is back and seemingly clean.

And although I threw Coates out there, I’m well aware that his problems last season largely stemmed from his injuries, although he did have a reputation as being less than entirely sure-handed in college. And yes, I’m kidding, but not entirely.

After all, if the coaching staff in Atlanta can turn a guy into a corner that quickly, I would be less than a 100% committed Steelers fan to think our coaches couldn’t do the same. We even have a DB coach who knows what it’s like to change positions (although in his case from safety to cornerback and back again.) Just a thought..

And what about the Darrelle-Revis-to-PIT rumors? I would say they are exactly that, rumors, and  I suspect if Revis were to end up signing in Pittsburgh it would be because he was willing to play safety, and to do so pretty cheaply. But time will tell.

And since I promised a BLA assessment of each position group, I will say that Artie Burns is a fine-looking man. Really fine. I love his character, I love his determination, and he’s easy on the eyes. The cornerbacks are in good hands there. I’ll of course address the draft possibilities, but I’m not going to get too excited about the recent roster adds until I see whether they make it all the way to training camp.

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