There are a couple of very popular narratives making the rounds as the Steelers prepare for the 2023 NFL Draft, and they pertain to arguably two of their biggest positional needs.
One narrative involves offensive tackle: The Steelers haven’t selected an offensive tackle in the first round since 1996 (Jamain Stephens).
A second narrative involves cornerback: The Steelers just aren’t good at drafting and developing cornerbacks (insert any number of corners the Steelers have drafted but failed to develop here).
The first narrative suggests that one of the main reasons the Steelers haven’t really produced a perennial All-Pro at the tackle spot is because they’ve neglected it in the draft.
I tend to agree with that. If you don’t throw premium picks at a position—but especially the most premium of picks—it’s ultimately going to have an adverse effect on said position over a period of time.
It’s also hard to disagree with the second narrative. You look at the history of Steelers corners who were drafted and/or developed during Mike Tomlin’s regime, and you can’t find many good ones, let alone great ones. That’s quite the indictment of Tomlin, a man who once coached defensive backs at the professional level.
But how many perennial All-Pro-caliber corners have the Steelers drafted and developed since 1987—the year in which they selected Rod Woodson 10th, overall?
It’s hard to come up with many names.
Carnell Lake was really good, although, he was a safety the Steelers selected in the second round of the 1989 NFL Draft. He did play some cornerback in the NFL. However, he only did that for a few seasons during his 13-year career; the first time Lake tried it, he filled in for an injured Woodson in 1995 and played the position at a Pro Bowl level, a performance that helped save a Steelers season that was quickly going downhill.
Deshea Townsend was okay, but he was never a star—he was essentially the Cam Sutton of his day.
Ike Taylor was a very good cornerback with poor hands who never made a Pro Bowl during his 12-year career.
Bryant McFadden may have had a more storied Steelers career if not for free agency.
Things started out horribly for Willie Gay before he ultimately turned his career around and became a decent corner in Pittsburgh.
But, overall, the pickings have been slim in terms of true star power at the position.
The Steelers haven’t had a cornerback who was among the best in the business since they allowed Woodson to walk in free agency following the 1996 season.
Is that coaching, or is that—much like offensive tackle—the failure to draft a corner with the most premium of picks?
Maybe you knew this. Maybe you didn’t, but the Steelers have only selected three cornerbacks in the first round since 1987—Deon Figures (1993); Chad Scott (1997); Artie Burns (2016).
A lot of this has been circumstantial, of course. For example, in Tomlin’s very first draft (2007), the Steelers selected 15th, or one spot before the Jets picked Darrelle Revis. Now, Lawrence Timmons was a damn fine inside linebacker who had a nice career in Pittsburgh, but we’ll never know what direction the Steelers may have gone in that draft had they had a shot at Revis.
Revis certainly would have changed the narrative about the Steelers and their failures to draft and develop corners.
Another reason has to do with where the Steelers have drafted in most years, which is to say, the 20s—the three times Pittsburgh has picked a corner in the first round, it’s been in the 20s.
The premium corners don’t usually last until the 20s, which may explain why Pittsburgh, a franchise that has only had three losing seasons since 1992, has mostly gone in other directions over the years.
If we’re going to blame a lack of first-round picks on why the Steelers have struggled at tackle in recent years, why can’t we say the same thing about cornerback?
And that brings me to 2023.
I’m not necessarily saying the Steelers have to take a cornerback at 17, but there does seem to be a wealth of legit first-round prospects in this draft class.
The middle of the first round isn’t ideal for finding a shutdown corner in most years, but it’s certainly not out of the question, especially in 2023.
The bottom line is this: If the Steelers do take a cornerback at 17, it will almost surely be one who was projected to be selected at least that high for many months prior to the draft.
It won’t be a reach. It won’t be Artie Burns 2.0.
If Joey Porter Jr. has the traits to be a perennial All-Pro, I doubt the Steelers will coach that out of him. The same can be said for Devon Witherspoon or any other highly-rated cornerback who might be available at 17.
Are there any guarantees? Of course not.
There won’t be any at tackle either.
I’m definitely not opposed to the Steelers selecting a tackle in the first round—it sure would be nice to find the next Orlando Pace.
But it also would be nice to find the next Darrelle Revis or Rod Woodson.
The odds of ever finding that guy are pretty low, but they get much lower when you routinely neglect the cornerback spot in the first round.