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Steelers CB Brian Allen could be the rare project player who still contributes early

The Steelers got themselves a flawed, athletic freak when they selected Utah cornerback Brian Allen in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft. He could play right away, but he needs to fix some technique issues if he wants to have longevity in the league.

Utah v Arizona Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Some guys, like former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning, arrive in the NFL ready to play on day one. Others end up being stars, but only after sitting a few years to hone their craft. Think Hines Ward.

Then there are those rare players who have glaring issues, but who are good enough in other areas that you want to find ways to get them on the field quickly, warning signs be damned.

The Steelers 2017 fifth-round draft pick, Brian Allen, may be that guy.

Allen has some clear problems with his game. If he didn’t, he would have been a sure-fire first-round pick, given his measurables. But we’ll get to that, because what he does well may get him on the field regularly, even early in the season.

At 6’-3”, 215 pounds, and with a 4.48 40-yard dash time, there’s something to be said for giving him early reps. He has the speed and quickness to keep up with most NFL receivers, and particularly in dime and even some nickel sets, that seems to be a legitimate possibility. He’s a willing and capable fighter in press-man coverage, and does a good job of watching and reading the quarterback in zone. Assuming he makes the final roster, he’ll see the field in 2017, simply for those reasons alone.

It’s the in-between that’s going to keep him down. Specifically, his problems begin with off-man coverage, and continue right on through less-than-desirable tackling.

Off-Man? Dot-Dot-Dot-Dash-Dash-Dash-Dot-Dot-Dot.

Steelers CB Brian Allen has technique issues
Brian Allen has some bad habits.

When it comes to off-man, Allen is sending out an S-O-S, of sorts. More accurately, he is simply telegraphing his intentions from the moment the ball is snapped.

One thing off-man allows you to do is mimic zone coverage. This is accomplished because you begin the play in a backpedal. From a quarterback’s perspective, that could be you mirroring a receiver in man coverage, or it could mean you are retreating to a medium or deep zone. It takes a moment or two for your intentions to become clear — and that’s a moment or two closer your defensive front is to sacking the quarterback.

Allen, though, has nearly universal tendencies: when playing a moderate to deep zone, he backpedals to the zone. When playing off-man, however, he almost always flips his hips at the snap and begins to run.

At the collegiate level, that can work. The vast majority of college quarterbacks and wide receivers aren’t going pro for a reason. That truth moves ever closer toward absolute as the size of a school — and, by extension, the school’s typical opponent — decreases.

That, however, won’t fly at the professional level, where every receiver is at least as good as the best receiver Allen covered in 2016. The reason the backpedal is so important is that it allows you move with the receiver when he breaks. In the example of the image above, however, Allen has no recourse if the receiver makes a hard break to the outside — for instance, a sideline comeback route.

If Allen doesn’t address this issue, he’s going to find it hard to get reps in the long term. In the short term, though, the problem can be masked by simply not using him much in off-man coverage.

Tackling is not his biggest resume builder

Steelers CB Brian Allen has some technical issues
Brian Allen has tackling issues.

Let me be clear: Allen is a willing tackler. He just has some issues with it. Then again, so do most of the Steelers’ cornerbacks. For Allen, though, the problem is compounded by the fact he is the new kid on the block. As the saying goes, “better the devil you know.” In other words: all else being equal, it’s usually better to go with the known quantity.

It’s hard to tell from the image above, because of the low quality, but Allen made several mistakes in attempting to make a tackle here. In the end, UCLA scored a touchdown on the play.

For starters, Allen had good positioning a the moment of the catch. But, instead of turning upfield and using a good angle to force the receiver to close the distance, he drove toward the receiver. He also seemed to try going for the strip, which could be a good thing, except that he didn’t have another arm around the receiver and the only other defender in range was in a terrible position to back Allen up. In the end, what could have been held to a 15- or 16-yard gain ended up being a 75-yard touchdown.

Allen’s athleticism will get him on the field to some extent in 2017 if he has a decent showing in pre-season. But, if he wants have a long career in the NFL, he’s going to have to work on these issues, and a few others, as well.

For now, though, athleticism and ball-hawking skills are going to have to be enough.