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Recent transactions demonstrate the Steelers’ new identity in their secondary

Pittsburgh enters 2023 with altered tendencies among its cornerbacks.

Central Michigan v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The weeks following the conclusion of the NFL Draft are largely a lull in a hyperactive football world.

Yes, the NFL releases the schedule for all 272 games in rather grand fashion, but there’s little tangible, concrete football from late April until OTAs in June. Sure, rookies will see the field for the first time — with some even donning full-fledged uniforms at Rookie Premiere — during rookie minicamp, but that window of practice is fleeting with a limited list of names.

Nevertheless, as the calendar turned to May, Pittsburgh and general manager Omar Khan have remained active in the financial books. The team made a slew of adjustments, with two involving quarterbacks: re-signing Mason Rudolph and extending Mitch Trubisky. Additionally, the Steelers officially signed former XFL standout and fourth-round pick Hakeem Butler.

However, two transactions involving two cornerbacks were especially resonant.

On May 10, the Steelers released veteran Arthur Maulet, who had been in Pittsburgh from 2021-22. Maulet played 860 snaps over the last two years as a slot/nickel cornerback, notching 106 tackles, four pass deflections, two sacks, seven tackles for loss and an interception.

Moreover, Pittsburgh cut Ahkello Witherspoon a week later, a move that enabled the team to shed $4 million in cap space. Witherspoon, acquired by the team in September 2021, played in only 13 games over the last two years as he battled both injury and inconsistency.

While cutting Maulet and Witherspoon seems to be financially related — both were set to become free agents after this season — it’s also key to recognize that Witherspoon is 28 and Maulet is nearly 30.

The ages of the two ex-Steelers are heightened when one considers the fact that Pittsburgh drafted both Joey Porter Jr. and Cory Trice Jr. this year. By utilizing two of their seven draft selections on cornerbacks, Khan and Mike Tomlin ensured an infusion of immediate young talent into their secondary.

The discussion of Pittsburgh boasting a young secondary feels moot when considering that the team’s presumptive CB1, Patrick Peterson, will turn 33 in July. Likewise, No. 2 option Levi Wallace is soon to be 28. The two have played a combined 251 games, with neither exactly being a spring chicken.

The presence of veterans certainly needs to be acknowledged, but the trend of less-tread tires is maintained when examining the inside portion of the team’s cornerback room. Chandon Sullivan, the likely replacement for Maulet, will be 27 in August, meaning he’s more than three years younger than Maulet.

Newcomers Porter and Trice aren’t just under 23, either. Both stand 6-foot-2 ½ or taller, with arm length measurements in at least the 81st percentile, per Mockdraftable. By cutting Witherspoon, it clears a lane in which Trice can solidify a roster spot — emphasizing a movement toward length and physical presence.

In fact, using a projected cornerback depth chart of Peterson-Wallace-Porter Jr.-Trice with Sullivan inside, the shortest is Sullivan at 5-foot-11, with all four plausible outside options sitting at or above the 6-foot threshold. That type of height would seemingly indicate an emphasis on intimidating receivers physically, jamming them off the line while closing space in an instant with long arms.

Additionally, the team appears to have upgraded the athleticism of its cornerback crop. Peterson, Porter Jr. and Trice each earned Relative Athletic scores of 9.65 (out of 10) or higher. The average of those five players’ RAS marks is 7.61.

For context, consider last year’s corner room of Cam Sutton-Wallace-James Pierre-Witherspoon-Maulet. Their average RAS? 5.8, rounded.

Of course, athleticism is only one trait that effective cornerbacks tend to possess. Sutton, at a 6.15 RAS, was a strong player by leveraging instincts and play recognition over speed and size. However, that jump in athletic ability better aligns with a modern NFL predicated on physical specimens emerging at every position.

The Steelers cutting ties with Maulet and Witherspoon may have been absorbed by a constantly revolving NFL news vortex, but such moves underscore important defensive philosophical shifts. In past years, Pittsburgh has relied on its front seven to pressure quarterbacks, with less reliable play in the back-end. Now, there appears to be a more balanced approach — jumpstarted by a younger, more physical and athletic cornerback contingent.