As more lists of the top players at their positions are getting cycled through heading into training camp for the 2021 NFL season, we continue to scour the lists looking for members of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pro Football Focus has been shooting out their lists left and right as of late as teams are in the OTA stage of the offseason.
And here comes my standard PFF disclaimer yet again as it seems necessary every time a new list comes out:
It seems like I can’t write an article about PFF without giving the typical disclaimer of how their projections can be highly questionable. Even their grading of players after the fact can be picked apart, so expecting them to do well in the prediction business is not something which I’m ready to bet the farm on based on their conclusions.
The next position on a list given by Pro Football Focus is outside cornerback. According to PFF, the Steelers’ Joe Haden comes in at number 17.
Jaire Alexander— PFF (@PFF) June 1, 2021
Marlon Humphrey@PFF_Linsey ranks the top 32 outside CBs ahead of the 2021 NFL season
Why Haden ended up in the 17th spot is described below according to PFF:
Haden may be on the downward slope of his career, but he has provided Pittsburgh with steady play at cornerback since joining the team in 2018 and should continue to do so in 2021. He’s picked off nine passes over the past three seasons, and that total should be even higher, as Haden’s nine dropped interceptions since 2018 are tied for the most at the position. Those missed opportunities only make the 77.5 passer rating allowed over that span (13th in the NFL) more impressive.
It’s no surprise Joe Haden landed on the list, but having him at 17th is the real debate. While he was a Pro Bowler in 2019, he did not see a major drop in production in 2020 other than in interceptions which seems to be the driving force behind cornerback rankings.
The big question will always be Haden’s age as he is already 32 years old. Getting to a point where the drop off in production should be anticipated, Haden has not shown that it is something which was already occurred. The fact the Steelers chose to stick with Haden over the younger Steven Nelson goes to show they don’t see a drop off coming in 2021.
Speaking of Steven Nelson, despite not having a place to call home for the 2021 season at this time, he lands four spots ahead of Haden on the list at number 13. Here was the breakdown for Nelson:
13. STEVEN NELSON, FREE AGENT
Nelson was another surprise release by a team strapped for salary cap space. His addition, along with the signing of Joe Haden, helped stabilize a turbulent cornerback position in Pittsburgh over these last two seasons. Nelson ranks among the top 10 cornerbacks in the league in both completion rate allowed (53.9%) and passer rating allowed (75.1) among 68 players at the position to see at least 100 targets since 2019. There’s a reason he has received plenty of interest since his release.
When looking at PFF’s rankings of Nelson and Haden for last season, Nelson was slightly ahead overall with a 67.1 score while Joe Haden had a 66.6. Hayden had the superior score in pass coverage with a 69.6 while Nelson was it a 68.1. The difference was Nelson was rated with a 64.1 grade in run defense where Haden was graded only 49.1 in 2020.
When it comes to their statistics from PFF, both Haden and Nelson ended 2020 with two interceptions apiece. Joe Haden allowed 35 receptions on 68 targets for a 51.5% completion percentage while Steve Nelson allowed 43 completions on 76 targets for a 56.6% completion rate.
When looking at targets and completions allowed, assigning which player is responsible for a reception is very debatable. For example, according to Pro Football Reference Joe Haden allowed 40 completions on 79 targets for a 50.6% completion percentage while Steven Nelson allowed 57 completions on 98 targets for a 58.2% completion percentage. Pro Football Reference also had Steven Nelson surrendering seven touchdowns in 2020 after not allowing any in 2019 were Joe Haden allowed three touchdowns in 2020 after allowing five in 2019. As you can clearly see, depending on the source the numbers vary somewhat.
In looking at the rest of the AFC North on the outside cornerbacks list by PFF, the top player was Marlon Humphrey of the Baltimore Ravens coming in at 3rd on the list. Teammate Marcus peters also landed in the 10th spot and secured them the top duo in the NFL according to PFF. The Cleveland Browns were also well represented on the list with Denzel Ward coming in the 8th spot. The Cincinnati Bengals also landed a player in the top 32 has Trae Waynes checked in at number 31.
In the NFL, cornerback is one of those positions where is may not be the easiest to predict from season to season. Sometimes when a player is highly ranked they find themselves seeing less targets and therefore not as much as an opportunity to gain interceptions which seems to be the key stat for recognition. Additionally, a player who may be perceived as a weakness happens to be in the right place to log several INTs and get themselves more notoriety. For the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers, it doesn’t matter where the interceptions come from as long as they continue to happen.