The Steelers have drafted very well for certain positions, mining talent in later rounds and developing dark horse candidates for NFL playing time into veritable superstars. Unfortunately, their knack for identifying and developing talent has not extended to cornerback. 2015 marks the third year in a row that a cornerback drafted in the fourth or fifth rounds will not see playing time.
The Steelers have found cornerback talent in the draft before. After all, recently-retired Ike Taylor was picked up in round four of the 2003 draft and had a long, productive career with the Steelers. In the wake of his retirement, however, the Steelers are finding themselves in a bit of a personnel crisis.
This year, the Steelers second-round draft pick Senquez Golson never even got to play football-in-pads at training camp, having arrived with a lingering shoulder injury that required surgery and placed him on IR. He never had the chance to prove naysayers wrong who had been perseverating on his small size.
Fourth-round pick Doran Grant out of perennial powerhouse Ohio State was drafted to address needs at cornerback, hailed as a well-rounded player adept at both intercepting the ball and tackling opponents. He did not pan out either, recently cut by the Steelers as they whittled down their roster to the final 53.
In the 2014 draft, the Steelers only picked up one cornerback, Shaquille Richardson out of UCLA, described in very positively in his scouting report: "Quick and agile and is aggressive jumping routes when he sees it. Can make spectacular plays look easy." Though tall, Richardson was a bit scrawny and underdeveloped. He did not make the final 53, instead bouncing around the NFL on various teams' offseason/practice squad units.
In 2013 the Steelers first three picks were Jarvis Jones, Le'Veon Bell and Markus Wheaton. Safety Shamarko Thomas was picked up in the fourth round, along with the controversial Landry Jones. The Steelers did not go for a cornerback until the fifth round, selecting Terry Hawthorn who ended up released at the end of the preseason the same year he has drafted.
Cornerback was not a priority in 2012, as the Steelers used their last draft pick in the seventh round, acquiring Terrence Frederick out of Texas A & M. Frederick is still active in the NFl, though not with the Steelers. He plays for the New Orelans Saints. Not a major contributor, he still was able to start in three games in 2014, totaling 17 tackles.
2011 was the last time before using a second-round pick on Senquez Golson that the Steelers acquired a cornerback in the first three rounds. That year, their choice was Curtis Brown out of Texas. This was the same year they picked up Cortez Allen in the fourth round. Allen is still a Pittsburgh Steeler. Brown, however, only started seven games, during which he tallied only seven tackles, before he tore his ACL and was subsequently released in 2014. He was just waived by the New York Jets.
The Steelers inability to find cornerback talent in the draft is troublesome. Sure, they've acquired talent from other sources. Most recently, they picked up former Philadelphia Eagle Brandon Boykin. Still, in the wake of Ike Taylor's retirement, cornerback is one of the weakest and most worrisome positions on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster.
After cutting a few promising prospects at cornerback, including Kevin Fogg, the Steelers are left with an assortment of players who have had limited success at the position, a few of whom have been heavily criticized over the years. As things stand, William Gay and Cortez Allen will be starting with Antwon Blake, Brandon Boykin, and Ross Cockrell serving as back ups.
With the switch to Cover 2 and continued problems with the pass rush, it would have been nice if the Steelers had some proven talent waiting in the wings to fill the void left by Ike Taylor, who, let's be honest, by the end of his career was not as productive as he was in his heyday.
The Steelers have no problem finding later-round talent for other positions. Hopefully in upcoming draft years they will have more success cultivating depth at cornerback. If not, the state of the secondary will continue to be a source of frustration and concern.