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What in the world is going on with the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary?

Senquez Golson might be on his way out, Ross Cockrell might not be good, and Mike Hilton might be a legitimate starter.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Red Sox selected 10 outfielders in the 2011 MLB Draft, including Senquez Golson, a bright-eyed centerfielder from Pascagoula High School in Mississippi. This was no throwaway pick: the Red Sox selected Golson in the eighth round, two picks before Kyle Hendricks, a legitimate ace pitcher who helped the Chicago Cubs to a World Series title last season, and a full round before Travis Shaw, a rock-solid utility man who is currently the best player on a potentially playoff-bound Milwaukee Brewers squad.

Golson, having already committed to the University of Mississippi to play cornerback for Houston Nutt’s Rebels, declined to sign with Boston. At Ole Miss, Golson quickly established himself as one of the best defensive backs in the country, setting a school record with 10 interceptions in his senior season. His success translated into a second opportunity to play professional sports, this time with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who selected Golson in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

Given what has transpired since—namely, two season-ending injuries in 2015 and 2016 and a third injury this season that could effectively end his Steelers career by virtue of a release—it is fair to wonder if Golson believes that he made the wrong choice. The Red Sox, who are currently 73-53 and have a five-game lead in the AL East, are a strong World Series contender. In some alternate universe, maybe Golson somehow beat out current All-Star centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. for the starting gig, won a ring in 2013, and is currently a key component of one of the most dangerous teams in baseball. (I like to imagine that in this universe Tom Brady retired at age 35 to be a full-time gardener).

In our universe, though, Golson is one of 11 cornerbacks fighting for a roster spot on the Steelers. Golson, unlike the other 10 cornerbacks on the roster, is enigmatic in the sense that we have no baseline from which to judge his abilities. His professional career has been entirely subverted by injuries, which, if we’re being honest, isn’t even his fault. In the spirit of baseball, let’s use a topical baseball example: on Wednesday, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Rich Hill pitched eight perfect innings against the Pirates before losing his perfect game on an infield error in the bottom of the 9th inning. This sucked, but at least his no-hitter was still intact. Remarkably, Hill did no-hit the Pirates in theory, but not in actuality, thanks to the fact that his Dodgers teammates, who are the baseball version of the Golden State Warriors, scored exactly zero runs. Hill, seeking to extend his no-hitter into extra innings, gave up a walk-off home run to Josh Harrison in the bottom of the 10th inning, which was the first hit that he allowed in the game. For context, this dude pitched nine innings of no-hit baseball (eight of which were perfect!) and ended up taking a loss. The point is that sometimes you do everything right and still hold an L. Existence is pain.

Golson, presumed public enemy number no. 1 of Lady Luck and three-time victim of the most inauspicious of circumstances, is not a likely candidate to secure a spot among the final 53 players on Pittsburgh’s Week 1 roster. To even put himself in this conversation, Golson will not only need to play in Pittsburgh’s final preseason game (and ideally in their penultimate one, too), but also channel his inner Champ Bailey during practice.

But even as I sit here today, I recognize that there is a real-world possibility that Senquez Golson will play for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017. This is for three reasons:

  • Golson was a second-round pick, and the Steelers will absolutely ride-and-die with high draft picks. Dri Archer was not good enough to play for the New York Jets (the New York Jets, you guys) but still hung around Pittsburgh for two seasons.
  • The last time Golson played organized football, approximately three seasons ago at Ole Miss, he was a monster. Mel Kiper Jr., who is right more often than he is wrong, said Golson was “one of his favorite picks” of the 2015 Draft. Golson is surely a major injury liability, but underneath his paper skin and glass bones beats the heart of a very talented defensive back.
  • The remainder of the secondary is an imbroglio of Tom Brady chew-toys. Like, why not see what Golson can do?

Take a cursory glance at the roster. I’ll wait. Based on this list, I have been able to draw exactly one conclusion that I’m willing to stand behind: Artie Burns will start at cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s literally it.

Ross Cockrell, the incumbant opposite Burns, is being pushed for playing time by Coty Sensabaugh after having a training camp and preseason rivaled only by Blake Bortles in terms of ineptitude. In fact, Sensabaugh took first-team reps earlier this week, demonstrating that the Steelers are not messing around with this cornerback stuff. It should be noted that this minor shakeup comes on the heels of Matt Ryan and Matt Simms bending over Pittsburgh’s starting secondary last week, which kind of puts a fork in the whole “ the preseason doesn’t matter” argument. I definitely didn’t think it did, but now I’m having second thoughts.

Cameron Sutton, a third-round pick who figured to play a significant part on Pittsburgh’s success this season, as been hindered by injuries and unable to demonstrate his mettle. Thankfully, Mike Hilton, the greatest cornerback in NFL history, is having an incredible camp and preseason and will make the final 53-man roster (and if you told me that he will be the starting nickel corner in Week 1 I wouldn’t argue with you). If this happens, at least the Steelers can say the found their young, undersized slot corner from Ole Miss.

Four of the NFL’s strongest Super Bowl contenders—Oakland, Green Bay, Atlanta, and New England—boast off-the-charts passing offenses. The Steelers, who are certainly among this group in terms of championship pedigree, are going to need to tighten things up if they hope to defeat Derek Carr or Tom Brady in January or Aaron Rodgers or Matt Ryan in February (fingered crossed that the Browns and Rams make the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl, respectively).