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Breaking down the Pittsburgh Steelers Team Needs: Part 1, Cornerback

The Pittsburgh Steelers are not a perfect team, and we are breaking down the team needs one by one.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

I refuse to mourn, even when a season that should have ended with a Super Bowl concludes with an ignominious evening where I actually and honestly rooted for the Browns to win. I’m not a Browns hater. Far from it. But come on, some things are just w-r-o-n-g! But enough with the negativity! Let’s look forward instead and try to figure out what could make this should-have-been-champions, talent heavy roster get even better for next year. [Sorry about that].

First stop: Cornerback. The Steelers aren’t particularly “weak” at Corner. It’s a matter of having too many question marks to let your heart rest easy. Here’s the current roster:

  • Joe Haden. ??? = Age. How long can he last?
  • Artie Burns. ??? = Can he survive his defeats? Burns has shown that he can win in the NFL but everyone saw him self-destruct as 2018 moved on. Will he triumph over himself and come back stronger (as so many other players have done)? Or will he flame out and die a football death from the CB yips (like just as many others)? Steeler Nation has united in rooting for this genuinely decent young man but you can’t assume success.
  • Cam Sutton. ??? = Will he make the next step? Can he fight his way onto the field or not? I loved the Cam Sutton pick but there’s no doubting the fact that he’s still getting outplayed by the likes of Coty Sensabaugh. Corner #5 is not what we need.
  • Brian Allen. ??? = Will he be the next Ike Taylor or the next Might Have Been? For all the rumors, hopes and dreams we’ve expended, this converted WR is still just a 6’3” mountain of athletic potential who does well on special teams but hasn’t found a way to play in the regular defense. Can he really be an NFL Corner? If not, can he at least become a backup to Sean Davis at Free Safety? We just don’t know.
  • Mike Hilton. No questions. He’s a tremendous slot corner, but only a slot corner.
  • Coty Sensabaugh. No questions, and that’s his primary asset. Sensabaugh is a reliable journeyman, but only a journeyman.

All of this means that Corner is the biggest “want” on the team. It’s easier to see what I mean if you take the time to imagine how adding one true stud would transform the entire defense. Follow the swinging watch... So sparkly and entrancing.... Sleeeeep... Now imagine that Patrick Peterson has found a way out of Arizona and declared his eternal love for Your Pittsburgh Steelers. The secondary is now... Hell, the Pittsburgh secondary suddenly looks all but invincible! Two Grade-A boundary Corners plus a Grade-A slot Corner? Are you kidding me? And three fantastic developmental prospects behind them, with a journeyman who’d force those developmental guys to fight for their football lives? Wow!!

Clap-clap! Time to wake up and face a Peterson-less reality. What does the roster look like now? Oh yeah. Four significant question marks, a good slot Corner and a journeyman. That’s the difference one superb Corner would make for this team. The problem, of course, is that you can’t whistle up a proven, HOF-caliber Corner just because we want one. The Steelers have a lot of cap space but the closest thing to a shut down corner in Free Agency will be Ronald Darby, and he isn’t up to comparisons like the Gent From Arizona. After that it’s talent like the injury-prone Jason Verrett, or “Well, he’s still pretty young” guys like Pierre Desir and Bene Benwikere. Thus the team will have to do what it usually does and focus on the draft.

It’s not a bad picture but it’s not a glowing one either. The goal has to be an upgrade on the floor provided by Coty Sensabaugh since there is plenty of pie-in-the-sky ceiling already there in the room. But who and what should they target? Here is a list of the Day 1 & 2 talent according to an initial draft of the BTSC Big Board that Nick Farabaugh and I have been compiling: [fn]

  • 1:05 CB Greedy Williams, LSU. 6’1”, 182 lbs. The best Corner in the draft. Ain’t Gonna Happen and he’s going to go before Pittsburgh could even hope to trade up and nab him. Don’t follow the lights!
  • 1:20 CB Byron Murphy, Washington. 6’0”, 175 lbs. A super-smooth beanpole with great COD, suddenness, and willingness to hit, but does he lack the size he’ll need to hold up in the NFL? He’s already been manhandled from time to time in college, and there are NFL players who are bigger, badder, and even more eager to dish out harm. And what could an NFL strength program do to help him overcome his build? Here is a 2-reviewer November scouting profile.
  • 1:25 CB Amani Oruwariye, Penn St. 6’1”, 204 lbs. Excellent size, length, hands, mirroring skills and ability to jam made him a dominant press man Corner against college receivers. Understands the need to tackle though he doesn’t seem to like it and isn’t any good at it. The draft process will focus on his makeup speed (40 time) because it’s expected to be on the poor side, and on the cone drills because those are expected to be great for a guy his size. The teams will of course focus on his football IQ and that eternal problem of stepping up to pro competition. For us the question is this: Does he offer a reliable floor, or is his grade being pushed up by the sky high ceiling? Our own Nick Farabaugh, an Oruwariye fan, did this gif-supported BTSC scouting report over the weekend, and here is a 2-reviewer November scouting profile if you want to know more.
  • 1:25 CB Deandre Baker, Georgia. 5’11”, 180 lbs. The high-floor, low-ceiling talent of the draft and the #1 darling of the statistics community. Baker’s film is superb but there are question marks about his native athletic talent - especially make up speed and some hip tightness - and whether his college results will carry forward against NFL athletes who are just as smart, physical and detail oriented as he is. At this point in time you can find grades on him ranging from the mid-1st to the early-3rd based solely on those concerns. The Combine will make a huge difference for the young Mr. Baker, especially with amateur reviewers like those who are reading (and writing) this article. This gif-supported BTSC scouting report by Nick Farabaugh is a great place to start. Here is an excellent, 2-reviewer New Year’s scouting profile that examines both the goods and the bads.
  • 2:12 CB Lavert Hill, Michigan. 5’11”, 181 lbs. The Combine results will matter... [RETURNING TO SCHOOL]
  • 2:12 CB/FS Trayvon Mullen, Clemson. 6’1”, 190 lbs. A rangy, very physical and fast enough CB with great ball skills, but he’s shown iffy COD skills even in college and already has a habit of grabbing on when he’s outmaneuvered. Early process grades from around the Web range from mid-1st (especially Matt Miller of Bleacher Report who just had him going at 1:10 in a recent mock) to early-3rd.
  • 2:12 Joejuan Williams, Villanova. 6’3”, 207 lbs. An ideal prospect to negate the Size XL+ receivers of the world (Gronk, AJ Green, Juju, etc.) but more vulnerable to the super quick and/or speedy jitterbugs (Tyreek Hill, AB, Switzer, etc.) if he didn’t get the jam in. A favorite among portions of the BTSC intelligentsia and arguably the best of the Richard Sherman wannabes. This November scouting profile by Jon Ledyard suggests that his 40 time (catch up speed) and the movement drills will be the big measurements to look for.
  • 2:24 CB Kristian Fulton, LSU. 6’0”, 192 lbs. As discussed in this gif-supported November scouting report, teams would be doing everything possible to avoid throwing at Greedy Williams if it didn’t mean throwing toward Kristian Fulton. His stock has also been depressed by a stupid, youthful attempt to beat a drug test that resulted in a 2-year suspension. The NCAA hit him with both the rulebook and a few dictionaries to help him understand... and then relented, dropped the penalty, and let him play after all. Huh? There’s a story that we don’t know behind this. FWIW your humble author has a hunch that Fulton’s stock is going to soar as the process moves forward and the smoke clears away.
  • 2:24 CB Isaiah Johnson, Houston. 6’3”, 195 lbs. A tall, long, fast athlete who, like Brian Allen and Bryce Hall, recently converted from WR and hopes to become a “Richard Sherman-like” Corner. Legendary boom if he hits; tragic bust if he doesn’t.
  • 2:24 CB Julian Love, Notre Dame. 5’11”, 193 lbs. A fantastic man coverage player in college, especially for a player who has never really learned to jam receivers on the line. Fluid hips, great mirroring skills, sterling COD, 3 years of starting experience, and top notch ball skills make up for that missing technique. Also boasts an active attitude in run support. Sounds almost exactly like the scouting report on Cam Sutton (who the Steelers stole in the end of Round 3) but with a hair less athleticism, no injuries, and maybe a whisker more technique.
  • 2:24 CB Brian Peavy, Iowa St. 5’9”, 185 lbs. Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: “Add three inches and he’d be in the conversation for Round 1.” It’s as true as ever but inches, like wishes, don’t appear on demand. Peavy has tremendously quick feet, moves well, tackles consistently, has three years of starting experience, and grades out in a tie with Deandre Baker for the #1 CB from a pure statistics POV - a feat he accomplished playing against wide open Big 12 offenses. Impressive! But he’s likely to be “only” a slot corner in the NFL and the Steelers have Mike Hilton already.
  • 3:01 CB Kris Boyd, Texas. 6’0”, 195 lbs. Feisty, aggressive, savvy and in-your-face with coverage built on basic technique. The drawbacks? Reviewers differ distinctly on whether (a) his COD skills are good or barely average, (b) his speed is good enough to avoid getting burned deep, (c) his tendency to grab when he’s beat can be cured, and (d) his are only okay our outright, Ike Taylor bad. All agree that he has an excellent football IQ, supports the run as well as many Safeties, and would fit best in a zone-heavy defensive scheme. This one’s in the eye of the beholder for sure!

The solution may be to go pure BPA in Round 1. As later articles will discuss it looks like the true Round 1 steals may be at Edge or possibly ILB. If that is the case it would make a lot of sense for Pittsburgh to trade up for a Corner in Round 2 using the anticipated Round 3 compensatory pick for Leveon Bell as extra ammunition. [**] It may cost our team through the nose but two top talents are going to help the Steelers more than 4 only-good ones.

** CORRECTION: Bell’s compensatory pick won’t be available until 2020. Credit to Crunchman’s Comment]

For what it’s worth Nick and I have also have seven other prospects with solid Round 3 grades. The 2019 Corner class is scanty at the very top but has nice, solid depth throughout Day 2. But does that really help the Steelers? Go back to the beginning of this article and you’ll see that Pittsburgh’s challenge at CB comes down to too many question marks. The Board may be deep but all 3rd-rounders come with question marks of their own. Adding another body always helps by adding competition, and as insurance in case one of the existing worries goes toxic. But it doesn’t help that much...

Next up: the midfield defenders: Buck ILB’s, Mack ILB’s, and Nicklebackers.

[FN] For those who don’t know, we organize the BTSC Big Board by a grade called “Highest Value”. An HV of 1:20 means the player is a reach for the Steelers at any point before Pick # 20 overall but good value at any point from the end of the 1st on. Getting that player in the early 2nd would be fine, while getting him at 2:12 would almost be a steal. Yes, this system results in a certain amount of grade inflation for positions of need because we are talking about the “highest” grade rather than where a player is expected to go; but it’s balanced by never, ever pushing a grade up because of need. Players with the same HV# are more-or-less equivalent and organized alphabetically.