The Steelers depth at cornerback should be one of their strength in 2012, but it's also one of its biggest question marks.
Such is the way of things for NFL cornerbacks. Every play, hero or goat. Riding that thin line between greatness and ridicule, it is, next to quarterback, the toughest mental position on the field. The Steelers will ride into training camp with one definite starter, CB Ike Taylor, and three younger players vying for the starting spot opposite Taylor - CBs Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown.
Who's going to start?
This is a classic position of competition. Due to the mental rigors of it, all must be challenged intensely before any "winner" can be named. It would be unwise to name one now, but expect Lewis to emerge as the starting cornerback opposite Taylor after a tough competition from emerging stud Allen.
It's almost necessary nowadays to name the nickel defensive back a starter as well, and Allen, due to his size and strength, will continue his growth as an outstanding slot defender, will hold down nickel duties.
Lewis (who turned 26 Thursday) and Allen both did well last season essentially as in-season replacements for CB Bryant McFadden, who went from starter to non-participator as 2011 went on. Both played nickel duties, Lewis on the outside when former Steelers CB William Gay shifted inside, and Allen inside in dime packages, most notably, against the high-powered Patriots offense in Week 8.
How much does the "starter" tag really matter?
I suppose it will for Lewis's upcoming contract negotiations (he'll play this season with a restricted free agency 1-year deal, and be unrestricted next year), but both he and Allen have the ability to play inside rather than outside. Lewis has the advantage of much more experience than Allen (29 games to 15, and Lewis was in on 404 snaps last year to 60 for Allen), so on one hand, it's silly to etch either of their name in stone next to "CB2." On the other, both should expect to see the field plenty often this year.
What about Brown?
Even with an increasingly impressive special teams resume, Brown just simply looks like the odd man out in a talented, young positional race. Certainly, we aren't casting him out permanently, it's only May, and it's a very long season. That's the nice part about depth at a position. Things can - and will - change.
At the very least, Brown looks like a top-end special teams gunner, and will continue to fill that kind of role in 2012.
Is this position locked up for the foreseeable future?
We've spent much time talking about the revamped offensive line, but before that, the priority investment seemed to be at cornerback. The genius part of the Steelers' previous future plan at the position was they scored big on younger players who fit a mold; tall, long and athletic. While having to fit in a guy like McFadden for transitional purposes, the Steelers drafted Lewis out of Oregon State in the third round of the 2009 draft, and Brown (Texas) in the third round, and Allen (The Citadel) in the fourth round of the 2011 draft. Mix in a swing-and-a-miss with fifth-rounder Joe Burnett in 2009, the Steelers invested just as heavily in cornerback as they recently have in offensive line, just without the big-time dollar amount or height of picks. The amount of money they've saved in building quality depth as opposed to giving out massive contracts to free agents like Nnamdi Asomugha has been more than beneficial, and it's something that will continue for the next few years.
Lewis could be the starter in 2012. Allen could be as well. With Lewis set to hit free agency, they have flexibility in the sense he's not an absolute must-sign (at this point anyway).
Also, they all are really system guys; physical, big zone corners (with the ability to play man, just not a ton of tape to show potential free agent suitors) with athleticism. It's the Steelers' defense's highest value position on the roster - most talent for the least amount of money.
They're going to reap the benefits of their investment in 2012.