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Analyzing the Pittsburgh Steelers Wants and Needs For the 2016 NFL Draft – Cornerback

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It makes sense to examine Pittsburgh’s wants and needs before we get too deep into the prospects available in this year’s draft. The results may surprise you.

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If you asked a hundred Steeler fans what positions the team should focus on in the draft, at least half would blurt out "Corner!" before you could finish the sentence. I’m going to argue that this common wisdom is misplaced. Corner is indeed a concern and they may well go there, but the biggest part of the problem has already been addressed. The anguish of 2015’s secondary didn’t come from lack of attention by the Front Office - it came from Cortez Allen's failure to play combined with the inevitable lag time to train up the young men who were already drafted/acquired to address this position. 2015 was the lag time. The 2016 squad is already better.

Look at it this way. A typical team carries four Corners on any given Sunday, often with a fifth who doubles as a special teams ace. So what do they have in place? There are three free agents going into the offseason:

  • William Gay
  • Brandon Boykin
  • Antwon Blake

I’m going to assume we keep William Gay because he’s nearing the end of his career, has made a home here in Pittsburgh that he values, and will receive something close to market value from the Steelers because his age will keep that value from getting out of hand. At least one side would have to be a fool to create any other result, and I doubt that’s true for either one.

Brandon Boykin I think will be gone. He wasn’t happy with his playing time in 2015, thinks he can get more money in free agency, and is probably right because Senquez Golson (last year’s No. 2 pick who spent 2015 on IR) is a very similar player with a lot more upside.

Antwon Blake... that’s a tough one. Mike Tomlin has a soft spot for tough, scrappy players who work hard at their craft in every practice and offseason opportunity. He tends to value those intangible assets over the physical skills that fans can measure, and most of the time he’s right. Antwon Blake has those intangibles. And he’s young enough to come back next year as a better player than the one we saw get burned so often in 2015. On the other hand, Blake often got burned because he has genuine limits on his athletic talent. It’s possible that he simply doesn’t have the ability to play much better than what he’s shown. For now I’m going to assume that results in another contract for Blake like the one he got in 2015. A fairly low, one-year "prove it" deal with a minimal bonus so the team can cut him if the younger talent proves able to beat him out.

We can discuss all this in the comments if you disagree, but I think these are the likeliest outcomes.

With those assumptions in place we can project the competition for next year’s roster as follows:

  • William Gay
  • Senquez Golson
  • Ross Cockrell
  • Doran Grant
  • Antwon Blake
  • Cortez Allen
  • Isaiah Frey (3rd year practice squad player)

Wait a second. Cortez Allen? Yes, Cortez Allen. He is still under contract and I see two ways reasons why he’s likely to be here next year.

First, there’s a chance that he really did suffer another season-ending injury. We’ve all been assuming that the team put him on I.R. as a smokescreen of some kind. If that isn’t true, there’s a potential No. 1 already in place. Second, I can see the front office putting the screws to young Mr. Allen in a way that would force him to renegotiate his deal.

You’ve been paid a lot of money Cortez, and you haven’t earned a dime of it. At this point you won’t get much on the open market. Frankly, you have some proving to do around here as well. Yes, yes, we know about the injuries, but who knows if that’s going to be a chronic thing? You’ve got a lot of money in your pocket; you and your family are set for life; how about you cut us a break and restructure your deal so the team can afford to take a chance on you moving forward?

If he agrees (or is willing to consider Free Safety), the odds that he'll be on the roster are actually kind of good. So yes, Cortez Allen is on the list.

That leaves a total of six or seven players competing for four to five slots. Not a lot of room for new talent. Even if you get rid of Allen and Blake, there are still four entrenched starters and any draft pick would have a very hard time seeing the field. One therefore has to ask this question: if you’re going to draft a Corner, where are you going to put him and when do you expect to see a benefit? Lord knows it won’t be in his rookie year and we plan to be Super Bowl bound in 2016!

Those are the reasons why Pittsburgh may hesitate to spend a lot of draft capital on a Corner. I think they’re likely to do it nevertheless. Here’s why.

First, the old rule of thumb says you draft for what your team will look like 2-3 years from now. William Gay was born on New Years day, 1985. He just turned 31. In two years he’ll be 33, which is verging on ancient for an NFL Corner. Drafting a prospect to be his eventual replacement is only good sense.

Second, you draft players who will be improvements over what you currently have. Unless Cortez Allen can return to the form we expected two years ago that shouldn’t be hard to do. Golson was a fine pick. Here is our report on him from last year’s Big Board:

Senquez Golson, CB, Ole Miss (Interviewed & Visit) - 5'8-1/2", 178 lbs. with short, 29-3/4" arms. Weakness: size, both in height and overall mass. He'd be yet another mighty mite in the Steelers secondary. Strengths: pretty much everything else. Golson is athletic enough that the Red Sox spent a draft pick on him too. As for football-specific skills, Mike Mayock has consistently lauded his "rare ball skills" and high football IQ, and even gone so far as to say "he tracks the ball as well as anyone I've ever seen". Golson is everyone's favorite "sleeper," to the point that I feel confident in saying that he'd be in the conversation for the Steelers pick at 1:22 if he was even two inches taller. But of course he is not. This scouting report from the NFL site is a good place to start. Golson's skill set really impressed former NFL strong safety Matt Bowen at the Senior Bowl, along with most other observers. This scouting profile comparing Golson and Steve Nelson comes from retired NFL scout Greg Gabriel. This is another joint scouting report (CB Kevin White and Golson), this time from our sister site for the Panthers.


That’s an awfully high floor. But no one suspects he’ll be the next Revis.

William Gay has turned himself into a nice #1 who’d be even better as a truly elite #2. He’s not Ike Taylor even if you give bonus points for decent hands. Everyone knows that I’ve been a Ross Cockrell fan since the 2014 draft, but I acknowledge that he’s still a work in progress. He was a Day 3 guy precisely because we knew he’d need a few years to bring out the gem that seemed to be buried inside. Doran Grant is a player in the Cockrell mold, but also a full year behind and therefore higher in risk. Cortez Allen and Antwon Blake... No need to go there. We all know how much risk those two bring for the future.

In short, there may be 6-7 players on the list but it should be possible to grab one who knock a few of them down on the ladder.

Risk itself is a third reason to pick a Corner. I believe that Cockrell will continue to improve, but there’s still a decent chance that he won’t. That chance is higher for Doran Grant. Perhaps a bit lower for Golson, but still significant since he hasn’t played an NFL down. As for Blake and Allen – you could put the word "risk" in the dictionary and add their photos. Of the six players projected for our roster, one is safe but aging and the other five carry some level of genuine risk that they’ll bust out completely. (There are many fewer unknowns for the actual F.O. of course, but we have to believe that they see the same picture we do with a better set of lenses. The risks will still be there even if the chances are better defined).

The bottom line is that adding a few more horses to the race will raise the odds of finding a few who have the stuff it will take to win.

Finally, the Steelers have a significant hole in the lineup at Safety. Several of us have bounced around wide-eyed speculation to the effect that Doran Grant or even Cortez Allen might move over to fill that hole. If this happens it will remove one of the competitors and thereby leave room a bit more room to accommodate a potential pick.

So my prediction is this: Pittsburgh will pick a likely Corner in Round 1 or Round 2 if the talent is there to be had (likely) and no "special" player at another position happens to fall (quite possible, especially at the D-line). There's also a decent to good chance that the team will pick up a return specialist who doubles as a DB somewhere in the 4-6 range. But Corner is emphatically NOT the desperate need that people make it out to be and fans shouldn't be shocked if the pick simply never materializes. It will simply mean that the F.O. has been told that Golson, Cockrell and Grant are going to mature into the real thing.

One thing we should put to bed is any speculation about a major trade in the 1st to grab a potential star at Corner. My friends, it Ain’t Gonna Happen! My favorite Steelers prospect in the draft is Jalen Ramsey. He’d be doing well if he had a Bud Dupree type of year, and he’s going in the top 5-10 anyway. Vernon Hargreaves is advanced enough to contribute at times, but he’s also going top-10. Mackenzie Alexander might have a chance to contribute in his rookie year (if the optimists are right and the critics who call him a 4th rounder are totally off base), but he’s going top-15. It would cost the Steelers an entire draft to get any of those guys, or else next year’s #1 in addition to this year’s. The suggestion is downright batty.

Time to close. Here is our current list of potential prospects at Corner for he first few rounds. Expect a great many of these grades to change as the process moves forward, but if you’re really thinking of a Corner for pick #25 it’s pretty easy to see who you should look into more closely: Kendall Fuller, Eli Apple, Artie Burns (a likely riser), and William Jackson III (same). For a mid-round pick keep an eye on Cyrus Jones from Alabama, who would slot in nicely as a kick returner with Cornerback potential as a bonus.

1:05

Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida - 5'11", 192 lbs. The best cover corner in the draft. There are some minor knocks on his physicality, but give me a break. Or don't. In fact, I heartily recommend that you focus entirely on the negatives, downsides and other sour-grapes components because there's not a prayer in the world he falls out of the top 10 short of catastrophic injury or some weird scandal.

1:05

Jalen Ramsey, CB/S, Florida State - 6'1", 204 lbs. The only question marks for Ramsey are measurables like straight line speed, cone drills, and other SPARQ components. If those only "okay" you're looking at the best Safety in the draft, bar none. If they're exceptional, you're looking at someone who could remind people of Rod Woodson - a superb Corner prospect who will eventually move to Safety as his career winds down. From the Steelers' point of view, the only question is where he would be "more" special. Alas, but it's not a problem they're likely to have.

This January scouting report from the Draft Wire emphasizes that Ramsey is an athletic genius who deserves all the raves, but also a player who will continue to improve as he masters more of the technical subtleties and intellectual aspects of the game.

1:15

Kendall Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech - 5'11", 195 lbs. This younger brother of the Bears' Kyle Fuller (#14 overall and a BTSC favorite) has been described as slightly less polished than his brother but with even more upside. Holy Four Letter Word Batman, could the Steelers ever use someone with those qualifications! He'd be another "don't be silly" candidate were it not for a season-ending surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Doctor Internet says it takes about 6 weeks before a person can resume training after an operation of this kind. That means Fuller may be able to do drills at the Combine, but should certainly be ready to participate fully at training camp. Personally, I sort of hope that he can't - it's just about the only way I can imagine him falling all the way down to Pittsburgh's eager hands.

Here is a summary scouting report from December that pegs Fuller as a Round 2 prospect. This December scouting report is a little more generous. This December article from a local paper provides some nice if shallow background.

1:20

Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson - 5'10", 195 lbs. [NOTE: This grade is lower than most because of the conflict between my primary sources, which grade him as an early Round 1 talent (CBS) or a Round 4 talent (Walter Football). Based on mock drafts, other boards, and similar sources some team will agree with CBS and pick him in the early teens]. Built more like a running back than a defensive back, he's been quite solid in 2015. A somewhat controversial candidate because he has some technique issues that make him less effective in zone coverage - a problem usually associated with overall football IQ. He may need a teacher as much as a coach. This November scouting report hints at issues with his willingness to tackle. This glowing December scouting report sounds eerily like a description of Ike Taylor, albeit shorter and thicker. This summary scouting profile from December adds a few more details, repeating the observation that Alexander has yet to master zone coverage and needs to work on his tackling.

2:01

Eli Apple, CB, Ohio State - 6'1", 200 lbs. An aggressive, physical Corner with good size, good speed, nice balance and fluidity, excellent skills in run support, and who comes from the Steelers' favorite hunting ground. There's a lot that's good about Eli Apple from Pittsburgh's point of view. The not so goods? They're solvable. For one, he's young - a redshirt sophomore. But the Steelers haven't hesitated about youth in the past. At this point he's also much better in man coverage than off- or zone, indicating a lack of football IQ that's probably tied to his youth. If he has the native candle power that will also be easy to fix. Eli Apple could easily rise into contention for the Steelers' first round pick.

Here is an early scouting report to get you started. This combination scouting report from retired NFL exec Greg Gabriel summarizes things nicely: He is so young that he'll probably start off as a #3 Corner at best, but he's a willing player in run support and has the physical tools to eventually be a #1.

2:01

Artie Burns, CB, Miami - 6'0", 193 lbs. On pure talent he's a first rounder, with extraordinary track speed, good hands, nice tackling skills, etc. As a Corner, however, he's very much a work in progress. If I was Mr. Burns' agent I'd be praying for him to land in a system with just the right coach because the real question is going to be whether someone can help him harness the potential greatness that's tucked away inside. This scouting report from retired NFL GM Greg Gabriel pegs Burns as a 2nd Round talent who could rise higher if he gets his 40 time into the low 4.4's.

2:12

William Jackson III, CB, Houston - 6'1", 185 lbs. Another prospect who projects nicely as a press-man Corner, but only with the proviso that projections are very unreliable when it comes to DB's of any kind. This scouting report seems more than usually competent, and is a great place to start. The verdict? Fast enough, long enough, skilled enough, willing enough, and a good team player, but probably a Day 2 pick nonetheless because he's vulnerable to double moves, he needs to add a good bit of strength, and he isn't the startling athletic genius you want to see in a 1st rounder. This scouting report is a little odd, because it cites "lack of size" as the main issue even though Jackson is relatively big for his position. It's probably a reflection of the need to build strength that other reports have noted. This scouting report may have the best summary: "Jackson is worth grabbing and will have a lengthy career as a solid #2 corner." This November article is more positive and predicts a rise in stock well into the 1st as teams begin to realize that Jackson checks off pretty much every box that teams look for in a Corner. Comparisons are drawn to Kevin Johnson, who was something of a 2015 darling for BTSC.

2:24

KeiVarae Russell, CB, Notre Dame - 5'11", 190 lbs. He's got the native stuff to be a good Corner but has had enough lapses to raise question marks. Corner is a terribly hard position to project because so much has to do with intangibles like intelligence, emotional stability, study habits, discipline and coachability. KeiVarae Russell is one of the harder prospects to measure on all of those factors. Take from this what you will, but he was suspended for all of 2014 due to "academic dishonesty," which is a big deal at Notre Dame. He could have gone pro but instead chose to return. What does that say about his internals...? I don't know. But that is the key question for Pittsburgh's scouts to answer. A broken leg in November may limit his performance at the Combine.

3:01

James Bradberry, CB, Samford - 6'1", 213 lbs. A height-weight-speed marvel from a teeny school (anyone remember Nick Williams?). The Senior Bowl could make a big difference in his prospects

3:01

Taveze Calhoun, CB, Mississippi State - 6'1", 184 lbs. Gritty, with a good record for solid tackling and work on special teams. The sort of guy who's likelier than most to have a long NFL career but might have to do it as a member of the squad rather than a #1 Corner.

3:01

Maurice Canady, CB, Virginia - 6'2", 195 lbs. Projects as a poor man's Richard Sherman, with great height, excellent intelligence, and questionable straight line speed. His native skill set screams "press-man" but don't count on it - Corners are just to hard to project.

3:01

Brandon Facyson, CB, Virginia Tech - 6'2", 191 lbs.

3:01

Deiondre Hall, CB, Northern Iowa - 6'2", 190 lbs. Can he succeed as well against first-rate competition?

3:01

Harlan Miller, CB, Southeastern Louisiana - 6'1", 180 lbs. Another tall, small-school Corner who needs to be tested against better competition.

3:01

Eric Murray, CB, Minnesota - 6'0", 194 lbs. A gritty, physical Corner who's been plagued by pass interference calls when pressed by better receivers.

3:01

Brian Poole, CB, Florida - 5'10", 210 lbs. Poole is the guy who was supposed to play across from Vernon Hargreaves, but got pushed down to #3 on the chart by Sophomore Jalen Tabor (a candidate for top-10 in the 2017 draft). Even #3's see the field a lot, however, so there's a lot of film in which Poole got targeted mercilessly throughout the college year. He held up... okay. His stock is likely to rise at the Combine based on measurables, but as always with the Corners it will be the unmeasurables that matter most.

3:12

Deandre Houston-Carson, FS/CB, William & Mary - 6'1", 198 lbs. A promising young man from Mike Tomlin's old school who is primarily a Free Safety prospect but might also be able to play some Corner. As discussed in this article and also in this article, DHC was a highly successful Corner until his Senior year when the coaches decided to do some cross training at Free Safety. He took to it so naturally that he ended up playing the position for the entire year. Other than some bad angles, which will get better with experience, and the normal improvement required to match up against NFL talent, he's also a fairly clean prospect. The bottom line is this: With his prototypical size, coverage experience, and good speed Houston-Carson will be a serious Day 2 consideration for a great many teams. Given Pittsburgh's openings for both a rangy outside Corner and a good Safety, the Steelers will be among those who study him the longest and hardest.

3:12

Will Redmond, CB, Mississippi State - 6'0", 185 lbs. He'd be a solid Round 2 prospect were it not for a season-ending ACL tear.

3:12

Zack Sanchez, CB, Oklahoma - 5'11", 175 lbs. A steady riser as his technique slowly improved over his college career, but that technique still has a long way to go. He's noted for "outstanding ball skills and hand-eye coordination," but is something of a mighty mite. The Steelers got one of those last year in Senquez Golson, which lowers Sanchez' stock a good bit.

3:24

Cyrus Jones, KR/CB, Alabama - 5'9", 185 lbs. This is a full retail with bonus points grade because Jones would slot into the Pittsburgh lineup like a jigsaw puzzle made for exactly that purpose. First, he is a genius punt returner who would finally relieve AB from that duty. Second, he is an able Cornerback with good hands, whose only problem is a distinct lack of inches. The Steelers have never cared as much for height as some other teams, but even if that limits Jones to the slot and for particular packages, his return skills re-elevate him toward starter value. Alabama kids also know how to compete and how to win. Say what you will about Nick Saban, he knows how to coach the talent he so ably recruits. Jones also played offense until his Sophomore year, so there's certainly room for him to keep getting better from the technical standpoint.

As discussed in this scouting profile Jones was briefly involved in a domestic violence swirl but the charges were dropped when it became clear that he was the one seeking police help to deescalate the fight. The scouts will no doubt explore the mess in detail, but from the outside it may even be spun in a way that makes him look better. This adoring and clever article from a local paper discusses one of Jones' better performances as a Corner, against the tall and productive Mississippi State squad. This is a similar article from the same paper except it's about the Cotton Bowl performance. This is a fun ESPN puff-piece article interviewing his parents. This goes to a very summary scouting profile.

3:24

Kevon Seymour, CB, USC - 6'0", 185 lbs. Here is a glowing preseason (August 2015) scouting report lauding Seymour's size, fluid hips, and willingness to tackle. Number 2 in this guy's preseason rankings after Vernon Hargreaves! After that things went downhill. Seymour suffered a series of nagging injuries and generally seemed to play a step or so worse than his physical talents should have allowed. Those things are hard to judge, and one has to give USC players something of a pass this year because of their coach disappearing in September, but combined with a few drops there is enough smoke to push his ranking down into the late Day 2 or early Day 3 range.


NOTE: Tre'Davious White of LSU, Desmond King of Iowa, Cameron Sutton of Tennessee, and Tony Conner of Ole Miss have all said they’re returning to school.