Going into this year a lot of the question marks regarding players also involve a major question mark on the coaching staff. As fans anxiously look for signs of development in our highly drafted rookie DB's, CB Artie Burns, CB/S Sean Davis, and fellow 4th round CB's Doran Grant and Ross Cockrell, there is also a lot of skepticism regarding the ability of DB's coach Carnell Lake to develop them.
There is a popular sentiment that these players represent a do-or-die last chance for Lake to demonstrate his ability to adequately prepare the Steelers secondary. Is it true that Lake's job is on the line, and if so is he able to rise to the challenge?
For some perspective, Lake began his relationship with the Steelers as a 2nd round draft pick out of UCLA in 1989. Lake was transitioned to strong safety as a Steeler, having played LB in college, and would later in his career play both cornerback and free safety as well, racking up 5 Pro Bowl appearances in the process. Lake finished his career with 2 seasons in Jacksonville and 1 in Baltimore that we forgive him for.
Lake served as DB's coach for UCLA for one season in 2009, and was hired in the same capacity by Pittsburgh in 2011. Coach Lake was welcomed by fans with open arms, and his immediately positive impact on the secondary became known as "The Lake Effect."
A prime example would be Keenan Lewis, a 3rd round draft pick from 2009 who considered a bust until under Lake he matured into a top notch starter with 71 tackles and 23 passes defensed. Lewis would sign the next year at a bargain $26 million with his hometown New Orleans Saints and hasn't come close to those numbers since.
But what have you done for me lately? Since then, popular opinion has largely turned against Coach Lake as many fans demand his replacement due to a perceived failure to develop new talent. This may be valid or it may not, but it's typically based on little more than a vague impression of what players have been involved in the secondary for the past 5 years and how well they've done. It's worth looking a little closer to see what's really been going on in the secondary during Lake's tenure and take a more informed opinion on his value as a coach.
3rd Rounder Shamarko Thomas (2013) has been a major disappointment, contributing nicely on special teams but yielding zero value defensively to this point causing the Steelers to move on to Sean Davis as the future at SS.
3rd Rounder Curtis Brown (2011) could probably be considered a true bust. Brown played in 29 games in 3 years, starting none, and was released after tearing his ACL. Signed by the Jets and cut after training camp, Brown currently plays in the CFL.
4th Rounder Cortez Allen (2011) played in 45 games in 4 years, starting 18, and impressed the FO enough to earn solid starting money before flaming out due to injury and lost confidence. Not exactly a huge success, but not a huge failure either for a 4th round pick with some bad luck. As a 4th rounder earning a significant second contract Cortez Allen is a win for Lake, but his collapse after getting that contract is a negative. You could argue this either way, call it a draw.
5th Rounder Terry Hawthorne (2013) was obviously a late round pick, but not so late that he wouldn’t have a chance to hang on for a couple years as a backup hopefully. He ended up being nothing more than a camp body, but a knee injury may have had something to do with that. He later would spend some time on the Patriots practice squad before signing with the CFL.
5th Rounder Shaquille Richardson (2014) was drafted in the same round as Hawthorne a year later and shared a similar fate eliciting a similar sense of disappointment. With Richardson, though, it wasn't injuries but character issues that provide at least partial probable responsibility for his failure to develop. Richardson had been kicked out of UCLA under investigation for felony theft, and was no doubt drafted in the hopes that he would develop the maturity to put his impressive abilities to use. In short, he was a boom or bust candidate that busted.
7th Rounder Terrence Frederick (2012) was cut by the Steelers, and went on to play 2 games for the Giants and 3 games for the Saints two years later. You could call that a failure, but how many 7th round LB’s, DL, OL, RB, or WR’s do we have on the team? These guys are expected to fail, not Lake’s fault.
7th Rounder Gerod Holliman (2015) was another camp cut, and again as a 7th rounder that's the expectation not a sign of failure, even when the player was an historically elite ball hawk in college. Also, like Richardson, Holliman was a boom or bust prospect. You can't say Lake should've at least been able to make a solid backup of him because that was never a possibility; he was either the next Ed Reed or completely useless.
These players are what most fans think of first in connection with Lake's coaching. High hopes connected with exciting draft picks dashed to smithereens. Out of six DB's drafted under Lake's watch, none have exceeded expectations and at least two (the two highest drafted) have significantly underperformed. This is why many fans would say Coach Lake's job depends on getting the most out of Doran Grant, Sean Davis, and Artie Burns, and some would say he should be gone already.
But there's actually more to this picture that needs to be examined. The Steelers have also added a number of players to Coach Lake's DB corps through free agency. How have they been developed?
2nd Rounder Mike Mitchell (2009, Oakland) started only 9 games in 4 years for the Raiders before emerging as a big time playmaker for the Panthers in 2013. He was added to the Steelers roster in 2014 after a cap crunch in Carolina forced them to let him walk. After struggling due to injury in his first year in Pittsburgh, Mitchell played some of the best football in his career in 2015 despite playing in a new system for the 3rd consecutive year. Nobody would've been terribly shocked if Mitchell had turned out to be a one-year wonder fueled by the outstanding play around him in Carolina, but Lake has kept him playing at the same high level.
4th Rounder (2014, Buffalo) Ross Cockrell was a late cut by the Bills after totaling just one tackle in 7 games as a rookie, and was picked up by the Steelers less than a week before opening day. Cockrell was able to become a serviceable component of the Steelers 16th ranked pass defense (opponents' passer rating folks, yards don't mean diddly if they don't make points), participating in 62% of defensive snaps as a cast off 2nd year mid-round prospect in a totally unfamiliar system. That Lake could whip him into any shape at all in that time is truly impressive.
4th Rounder (2012, Philadelphia) Brandon Boykin came to the Steelers in exchange for a 5th round draft pick after a frustrating follow up performance to an electric 6 interception season in 2013. His 2015 was even more frustrating as he was virtually non-existent for the first two-thirds of the season and ended up playing in less than 25% of defensive snaps. Boykin would go on to sign with Carolina and get cut two months later, remaining unemployed for a month before signing with Chicago, and thus lending credence to Coach Lake's later assertion that he was handicapped by a degenerative hip problem. Boykin is currently on Chicago's IR with a torn pectoral muscle, and it's hard to blame his lack of success in Pittsburgh on Lake.
5th Rounder William Gay (2007, Pittsburgh) was initially inherited by Lake as a 4th year player with 1 career interception and the dubious distinction of being most fans' most hated player. Apparently, Lake taught Gay something about ball skills at least, as starting that year Gay would increase his interception rate by 800% with 10 picks in the next 5 years, including 5 for TD's. Gay left for greener pastures with a 2 year contract from Arizona in 2013, but was released after one year and came back to Pittsburgh where he is now playing the best football of his life as one of the better starting CB's in the league. It wouldn't be amiss to suggest that the one difference between William Gay the original Antwon Blake and William Gay the fan favorite is Coach Lake.
6th Rounder Brice McCain (2009, Houston) was released by the Texans after following up a very promising season with a truly terrible one, in some ways comparable to the Steelers' Cortez Allen. Under Coach Lake's tutelage, McCain had a renaissance in Pittsburgh, which he parlayed into a bigger contract with Miami, but was released by the Dolphins after once again regressing. Coach Lake ends up looking pretty good for getting the good Brice to show up while wearing the Black and Gold.
UDFA Antwon Blake (Jacksonville, 2012) recorded 12 tackles in 16 games for the Jaguars before being released by the Jags and signed the next day by the Steelers in 2013. By late 2014, Blake was showing some promising signs as a big hitter and feisty competitor for the ball with 42 tackles, 6 passes defensed, an interception, and a forced fumble in limited opportunities. He won the starting job in 2015 and was exposed as less than capable in that role, much to the ire of fans, but made some big plays as well as giving them up. As a solid backup with the ability to start in an emergency, Blake was snapped up in free agency by the CB-starved Titans. No matter how much you may hate him, Blake has been vastly more successful than your average UDFA. Give Lake some credit for that.
UDFA Robert Golden (2012, Pittsburgh) had flown under the radar mostly until last year, although he has his faithful few fans. In 2015, the failure of Shamarko Thomas to develop and the diminishing skills of an aging Will Allen thrust Golden forward as the unlikely hero who performed adequately in his 3 starts. Any production you can get out of an UDFA is a plus, and when it's enough to earn a second contract you know you're doing something right. Great job here by Coach Lake.
Coach Lake's success with free agents compared to drafted players is startling. Cockrell, Gay, McCain, Blake, and Golden are the names of guys who were not supposed to be good enough to play in the NFL, but became at least functional role players due to Lake's coaching. Mike Mitchell is a quality player who has continued to thrive under Lake's tutelage despite scheme changes and a poor supporting cast. There have of course been some bargain free agent acquisitions who haven't developed, like B.W. Webb for example, but that's expected. The number of bottom of the barrel free agent prospects Lake has elevated to plausible players is impressive.
When you look at all the players and how they've actually performed, Lake doesn't look like he's done that badly. While he's failed to develop any top quality players, it's also true that he hasn't had any top quality prospects to work with. As is often pointed out, a pair of 3rd rounders are the highest draft picks he's had the opportunity to develop, but that argument would have more weight if either of those players had met expectations. Another point to recognize, though, is that Lake probably deserves substantial credit for the development of inherited players William Gay and Keenan Lewis, who did actually become top players under his watch. Free agent acquisition Brice McCain could've also been called a quality player during his time with the Steelers. Lewis and McCain were allowed to be signed away, but that's not Lake's fault and a CB corps consisting of Gay, and McCain and Lewis as they played under Lake would be a solid group.
Another observation that jumps out from this overview is that maybe the Steelers have just not drafted well at the DB positions lately. If Coach Lake were unable to develop talent, then at least some of the CB's the Steelers have cut should've gone on to find at least a backup role on another team. In actual fact, the opposite is true. Coach Lake picks up the players other teams cut and turns them into at least backups, while Gerod Holliman, Terrence Frederick, Shaquille Richardson, Terry Hawthorne, and Curtis Brown are all out of the league. In contrast, many of the offensive linemen we've cut over the years, Tony Hills, A.Q. Shipley, Kraig Urbik, and Wesley Johnson went on to become productive players on other teams. Lake's position really would be shaky if Holliman were playing capably somewhere else right now, but nobody can coach a player who just isn't any good.
There should be no doubt that Lake has been at least competent in his role as DB's coach. Having little to work with and being compared with greats like Munchak, Mitchell, Mann, and Saxon at the other positions makes it hard to look good, but he's done a decent job with what he had. He's proven that he can get the most out of marginal talent as well or better than anyone else, and I wouldn't trade him for anyone in the league to coach the group of misfits we've relied on in the secondary for the past couple years. His comparative success with failed and flawed CB's has earned him the title of "Cornerback Repairman."
This year, however, will demand more of Coach Lake and for the first time in his career the high expectations of him are actually legitimate. Lake does need to prove he can turn talented players into stars because at the end of the day the ability to wring semi-competent play out of incompetent players is not a super marketable skill. This year will test how much Lake's proven ability to get the most out of the least translates to getting greatness out of goodness.
There's just no evidence to base a prediction on for whether or not Lake is capable of developing an elite player, but we can make some general observations of probability. For one thing, it seems like the less desperate and more entitled a player is seems to have a negative impact on his development. Lake's failures are highlighted by the highest drafted player (Curtis Brown), a player with a big new contract (Cortez Allen), and spectacular collegiates like Shaquille Richardson and Gerrod Holliman. Shamarko Thomas may be the odd man out as he was fairly famously eager to learn, and Mike Mitchell would've had some reason to feel entitled as a big name free agent, but there is at least a partial trend here. This would indicate that maturity, humility, and a strong work ethic will instrumental in Davis' and Burns' success.
Second, it seems like raw prospects are not a major problem for Lake. Some guys may be able to get the most out of a very good player, but they can't climb down from their ivory tower to teach a rank amateur the very basics. Lake is not one of those guys. He's used to starting at square one with players, and his success getting extremely raw players on the field like Cortez Allen, Antwon Blake and Robert Golden bodes well for the raw talent Colbert got for him in the high rounds this year. It seems like Coach Lake can teach the basics at least well enough so that with their athleticism Davis and Burns should be able to be decent. As for greatness, we'll just have to see.