The Pittsburgh Steelers deviated from their longstanding philosophy of refusing to draft defensive backs early by selecting Artie Burns and Sean Davis with their first two picks of the 2016 NFL Draft. Burns, who many draft evaluators considered to be a day two talent, winded up playing over 90 percent of Pittsburgh’s defensive snaps over the course of Pittsburgh’s final 10 games of the season. Davis, meanwhile, played snaps at slot corner before seizing a starting spot at safety opposite of Mike Mitchell, winning the team’s Rookie of the Year award in the process.
In accordance with the success of Davis and Burns (which sounds strikingly like a successful marketing firm), Pittsburgh’s perennially leaky secondary transformed into a top-tier unit capable of masking deficiencies in other areas—until the AFC Championship game, where they were Tom Brady-ed by Tom Brady.
That game proved two things: that despite a young, borderline patchwork secondary, the Steelers are Super Bowl contenders, and that they have an immediate need for more young defenders to ensure their status as contenders.
Locating two viable starters in the secondary in a single offseason is a notable achievement in and of itself, and replicating such a feat would require an extraordinary amount of luck. However, the Steelers might not have much of a choice but to try. William Gay is 32 going on 40 and was nothing short of a liability as a starting cornerback last season. Gay’s presumed replacement, former second-round pick Senquez Golson, has been hampered by injuries and has yet to play a snap. Moreover, Pittsburgh recently tendered Ross Cockrell, who played more snaps at cornerback than anyone on the team last season. He is technically free to sign with any team (though Pittsburgh has the option to match) and it would only cost his suitor a fourth-round draft pick—a small price to pay for a 25-year-old starting cornerback.
Point being, cornerback represents a huge, immediate need for the Steelers. Even if Cockrell plays out his one-year tender, the Steelers will need to make some moves.
Thankfully, the 2017 cornerback class is unprecedentedly deep, and the Steelers will have an opportunity to address the position early. USC’s Adoree Jackson, Tennessee’s Cameron Sutton and Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis are all decent second-round options who have the potential to earn starting jobs.
Free agency boasts a similarly bountiful crop. Pittsburgh probably does not have the capital to acquire Stephon Gilmore or A.J. Bouye, the latter of whom is arguably the jewel of the class, but they could be in the market for a mid-tier option such as Prince Amukamara or Captain Munnerlyn. If fact, the Steelers have already expressed interest in Dre Kirkpatrick, who spent the first five years of his career with the rival Bengals.
Normally, the Steelers would allow free agency to dictate their draft plans or vice versa. With only one sure thing on the roster at cornerback - Burns, who looks like a star in the making and has four years left on his deal - the Steelers would be wise to invest in multiple players.