Steelers Rookie Cornerbacks Cam Sutton & Brian Allen Aren’t Only Options for Boosting Secondary

As we move further away from the 2017 NFL Draft and into such things as rookie mini-camp, there are still those who don’t think the Pittsburgh Steelers did enough to try and improve their secondary.

  • But that’s usually the case with post-draft analysis, isn’t it?

For every pundit or fan who was happy with Pittsburgh’s selection of Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt in Round 1 and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in Round 2, there was at least one person who thought the Steelers should have picked other players or addressed different areas of the roster.

As it pertained to the secondary, the Steelers did address it, when they selected cornerbacks Cam Sutton (Tennessee) and Brian Allen (Utah) in the third and fifth rounds, respectively.

Cam Sutton,

Cam Sutton returning an interception for the Tennessee Volunteers. Photo credit: CBS Sports.

So, was the third round a little too late to take a corner, which was the case with Cam Sutton, a four-year starter who recorded seven interceptions and 30 passes defensed during his college career?

Some might say that it was, but when you consider Pittsburgh used its first two picks of the 2016 NFL Draft to take defensive backs–cornerback Artie Burns in the first round; and safety Sean Davis in the second round–it may put the draft strategy in a better context.

  • After all, you can’t address every single need in the first and second rounds. And since when were third round picks not expected to become starters sooner rather than later?

Now, if you want to argue that the selection of Brian Allen, a converted wide receiver who, by most accounts is a tremendous athlete but very green for his new position, could wind up on the cutting floor at training camp in August, you may be on to something.

Despite drawing some raves for his one-handed interception during Day 2 of the Steelers rookie mini-camp on Saturday, Brian Allen is most-likely a project player and may have to spend some time on the practice squad during his rookie season; or, if he’s lucky, he could make the team but be a healthy scratch each and every week, as he learns his craft under the guidance of Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake.

Like any other renovation project, there was still a great deal of dust visible in the Steelers secondary last season, this despite the defense improving  from 30th against the pass in 2015 to 16th. For example, there was the entirety of the AFC Championship game, in-which several Patriots receivers–including the little-known Chris Hogan–roamed through the defensive backfield almost totally uninhibited.

  • Speaking of which, the mantra among the fans since  the 36-17 beat-down in New England has been that the team needs to find a way to beat the Patriots.

Playing a zone against a quarterback as decorated as Tom Brady has pretty much been a recipe for disaster for the Steelers, going back to the days of Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu. But when you examine the resumes of Artie Burns and Cam Sutton, you’ll see that playing man coverage is something they excelled at in college.

Àrtie Burns,

Artie Burns following a 2016 interception. Photo Credit: CBS Sports

When the Steelers drafted Artie Burns with the 25th pick a year ago, many wondered how a defense that specialized in zone coverage could have taken a corner that excelled in man.

  • Maybe because the defense doesn’t want to specialize in zone coverage any longer.

It was argued that Pittsburgh couldn’t really switch to man coverage against the Patriots because it didn’t have the personnel for it. That may have been true then, but it could be a different story moving forward, if Burns continues to make progress, and a player like Sutton quickly shows that his college skill-set can translate to the pro level.

When you study what the Steelers have done in with the secondary in recent years, you’ll see that the transformation may have begun in 2014, with the free-agent signing of safety Mike Mitchell

There were high hopes within the organization that Senquez Golson, a very productive player who had 10 interceptions during his senior year, could step right in and be the slot corner. Unfortunately, due to injuries, not only did Golson miss his entire rookie year, he missed all of his second season as well.

  • As for Doran Grant, who, if memory serves me correctly, was drawing Allen-esque raves about two years ago, he never quite caught on.

There may still be hope for Senquz Golson, who certainly hasn’t suffered any catastrophic injuries and may just be hindered by a lack of experience. Then again, there those who fear that Senquez Golson could be this generation’s Kris Farris (ok, that’s a plug for another article on this site, but hey, its a good article.)

You throw Senquez Golson into the pot with Artie Burns, Mike Mitchell, Sean Davis, Cam Sutton, Brian Allen and, yes, Ross Cockrell, a former fourth round pick by the Bills who started all 16 games at corner last year and was often lined up against the other team’s top receiver, and you may have the makings of a pretty decent secondary sooner rather than later.

An old building isn’t renovated overnight, and neither is a struggling secondary.

 

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The Colbert Record: Grading the Steelers 2012 Draft, B-

The with 2017 NFL Draft in the books, it is now time to turn our attention to grading Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s performance with the Steelers draft class.

  • Of course, we’re talking about grading the Steelers 2012 Draft Class here.

The question of when a draft class is ripe to grade is an interesting one with no definitive answer. Same day draft grade border on inane, as Ike Taylor and the Steelers 2003 Draft Class demonstrates. Year after draft grades certainly aren’t much more helpful either.

After the rookie years of Sean Davis, Artie Burns and Javon Hargrave, the Steelers 2016 Draft Class is looking pretty smart. But the same could be said in May 1990 about the 1989 Steelers Draft class, which had its gems but also a lot of fools gold.

The Steelers 2011 Draft Class seems to make a solid case for why you really need to wait five years to grade a draft class, and while others may quibble, we’ll stick with it grade the Steelers 2012 Draft Class.

David DeCastro, Steelers 2012 Draft Class grades, DeAngelo Williams

David DeCastro lines up in front of DeAngelo Williams in 2015 as the Bengals visit Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Pittsburgh CBS Local

Steelers 2012 First Round Pick – David DeCastro, Guard, Stanford

When a highly rated prospect falls in the first round of the NFL Draft, it usually for two reason. First, some sort of off the field issue, be it true or not, surfaces and prospective buyers shy away. Second, sometimes one team will make an unexpected pick or trade scrambling everyone else’s draft board.

Going in to the 2012 NFL Draft, David DeCastro had been rated very highly, some experts had him in the top then. But then a run started on defensive lineman, and DeCastro continued to fall. The Steelers didn’t hesitate to pick DeCastro, and haven’t looked back since.

David DeCastro started as a rookie, although he lost most of that season ton injury, but was a full time starter by 2013. By 2014, DeCastro was establishing himself as a force on the field, and showing that streak of nasty that makes offensive lineman great. By 2015, David DeCastro had done well enough to see the Steelers exercise their 5th year option on him and eventually sign him to a long term deal.

For what it is worth, the NFL Network is rating DeCastro as the 97th best player in the league. Grade: Quality Value Pick (trending toward Grand Slam).

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Steelers 2012 Second Round Pick – Mike Adams, Tackle, Ohio State

Mike Adams provides the perfect example of a player who fell for kind of reason. In his case it was a failed drug test at the NFL Combine. The Steelers knew about this, and took them off their board because of it.

  • Mike Adams of course worked his way back into the good graces of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin.

The Steelers took him admitting that there are risks with every pick. The easy evaluation, based on the disaster that was Mike Adams starting at left tackle, is that the Mike Adams pick was a bust. That’s a tempting conclusion to take, but it is not quite accurate.

  • People forget that Mike Adams started 6 games (per Pro Football Reference’s count) at right tackle in 2012 and played fairly well.

HE also made four starts at right tackle in 2014 and again he performed well. 2015 was lost to injury. OK, if you pick a man in the a tackle in the second round, and you project him as a left tackle, you expect more than 10 good starts at right tackle out of the player.

But the Steelers did get some value out of Mike Adams, it just wasn’t enough. Grade: Disappointment

Steelers 2012 Third Round Pick – Sean Spence, Inside Linebacker, Miami

This pick perhaps illustrates just how much of a factor luck plays in forming a successful NFL Draft. The Steelers drafted Sean Spence with an eye towards replacing Larry Foote. All indications in training camp and preseason were that Spence was capable of being that player.

  • Then disaster struck, as Sean Spence suffered what could have been a career ending injury during preseason.

The Steelers kept Spence on injured reserve for two years, and in the meantime drafted Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier. Spence returned to full health in 2014 and functioned effectively as “The Next Man” up starting 13 games over the next two years.

Steelers vs. Texans, Sean Spence

Sean Spence after forcing a fumble in the Steelers 2014 win over the Houston Texans. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

Who knows how good Sean Spence would have been had not been injured? How well would have he would have played during 2014 and 2015 had Shazier not forced him to the bench? Will never know the answer. All indications are that Colbert and Tomlin made the right pick with this selection, but unfortunately due to no one’s fault, injury prevented the Steelers from recouping its full value. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Steelers 2012 Fourth Round Pick – Alameda Ta’mau, Nose Tackle, Washington

Note to Kevin Colbert: Next time you think of trading up to grab someone in one of the middle rounds, don’t pick a guy that is getting KOed on highlight films by your first round pick.

Because that’s exactly what the Steelers did in 2012 when they traded up to get the “last pure nose tackle in the draft” even though one of David DeCastro’s highlight reels included him totally dominating
Alameda Ta’mau.

That didn’t stop some pundits from predicting that Ta’Mau would become Casey Hampton’s heir apparent. Instead Ta’Mau became best known for his South Side drunken rampage, where only by the grace of God no one got seriously injured.

The Steelers didn’t cut him immediately, but he was gone by year’s end without playing a down and played in 14 games for Pittsburgh West over the next two season. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2012 Fifth Round Pick – Chris Rainey, Running Back, Florida

Unlike Ta’Mau who had a previous alcohol incident that the Steelers knew of but was not public knowledge, Chris Raniey brought a checkered history to Pittsburgh. However, the Pouncey family vouched for Rainey and the Steelers gave him a chance.

  • Chris Rainey was supposed to be a utility back for the Steelers – a small speedy back who could come out of the flat to spread the field.

As a running back Rainey saw spot duty in 2012 and had a respectable rushing average, and he also caught 14 passes on 22 targets which is also respectable, although he never showed any of that field stretching ability. Rainey had a minor run in with the law late in the season, and then his name popped up in the police blotter for domestic violence in January.

The Steelers cut their losses immediately and sent Rainey packing. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2012 Seventh Round Pick, A – Toney Clemons, Wide Receiver, Colorado

Toney Clemons never caught on with the Steelers, but he did play four games in 2012 for the Jacksonville Jaguars and was never heard from again. Grade: Farm Team

Steelers 2012 Seventh Round Pick, B – David Paulson, Tight End, Oregon

Fans will remember David Paulson for his dropped pass in the Steelers road loss to the Bengals in the second game of the 2013 Steelers 0-4 start. And yes he should have caught that, and yes it could have been a difference maker.

  • But David Paulson was a number 4 TE playing as a number 2 TE.

All told, David Paulson had 13 catches on 21 targets over 32 games for the Steelers. Those are hardly Mike Mularkey numbers, let alone Heath Miller type stats. But not bad production from the 240th man taken in the draft. Grade: Quality Value Pickup

Steelers 2012 Seventh Round Pick, C — Terrence Frederick, Cornerback, Texas A&M

Terrence Frederick never made caught on with the Steelers but played 5 games in 2012 and 2014 for the New York Giants and New Orleans Saints. Again, not for a 7th round pick and not a bad way to pocket six figures before starting your “Life’s Work.” Grade: Farm Team

Steelers 2012 Seventh Round Pick, D – Kelvin Beachum, Tackle, SMU

If most NFL General Managers would be forced to confess, when they get to the 248th pick of the draft they’re probably thinking, “If this works out well, he’ll land on the practice squad.” You don’t pick a man that late and expect him to play seven games for you that year, let alone start 5.

Yet that’s what Kelvin Beachum did for the Steelers as a rookie. There weren’t many bright spots for the Steelers offense on the backend of 2012, with Ben Roethlisberger’s injury to Young Money going broke, to the three headed implosion at running back.

But Kelvin Beachum was a true bright spot for the Steelers, as he went on to save the Steelers season in 2013 by stepping in at left tackle, and established himself as a legit starting left tackle in 2014. Grade: Grand Slam

Steelers vs. Chargers, Kelvin Beachum, Kelvin Beachum right tackle

Kelvin Beachum starting for the Steelers vs. the Chargers in late 2012. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via PennLive.com

Grading the Steelers 2012 Draft

Only David DeCastro remains of the Steelers 2012 Draft Class and by many measure’s that’s bad, because in theory this is when your draft picks should in their prime, hitting their stride. And when that happens, a team wins. See the roles the Steelers 2002 Draft Class played in winning Super Bowl XL.

  • But the 2011 NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement’s rookie salary cap altered that calculus a bit.

By essentially mandating that every NFL team devote the same portion of his salary cap on its draft class, it raised the marginal value of the production a team gets out of its draft picks during their rookie contracts.

Viewed in that light, the Steelers got excellent value out of David DeCastro and Kelvin Beachum. They also got solid contributions from the Sean Spence and even got “Something” out of Mike Adams and David Paulson. Unfortunately are weighed down by the loss of value of Ta’amu and Rainey and the draft pick they used to get Ta’Amu.

All told, Steelers 2012 Draft Class had a “Good But…” quality to it, and that’s why we’re grading out with a B-.

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Steelers Draft Brian Allen in 5th Round, Amidst Familiar Carnell Lake Refrain

The 5th round of the 2017 NFL Draft saw the Pittsburgh Steelers draft Brian Allen a cornerback from Utah.

Brian Allen was the second cornerback the Steelers took in this draft, after taking Cam Sutton with their first pick in the 3rd round of the Draft. Since drafting Senquez Golson in the 2nd round of the 2015 NFL Draft, the Steelers have taken 4 cornerbacks in the last 3 drafts.

  • At 6’3” and weighing in at 215 pounds Allen represents the larger cornerback that the Steelers used to seek for their defense.

However, Brian Allen is a converted wide out who only has two years under his belt at corner, and one year as a starter. That college track record mirrors that of 1st round pick T.J. Watt, but unlike Watt, Allen’s combine times however were a little wanting.

Steelers draft Brian Allen, Brian Allen

Steelers 5th round pick Brian Allen intercepts a pass for Utah. Photo Credit: via USA Today’s SteelersWire.com

Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake didn’t address Allen’s measurable but did suggest “I think with some more games under his belt, he probably would’ve been drafted a lot higher.”

If that sounds familiar, it should. After the Steelers drafted Shamarko Thomas in 2013 and Senquez Golson in 2015 Carnell Lake suggested that had both men been two inches taller they’d have been 1st round picks.

Welcome to 2017 ladies and gentleman, where even 6th round picks have their own highlight reels prepared for them.

The Steelers selection of Brian Allen adds him to a depth chart which includes starters Artie Burns, Ross Cockrell, veteran William Gay, Senquez Golson, Coty Sensabaugh, Cam Sutton and Al-Hajj Shabazz. Even if William Gay makes the rumored transition to safety, Brian Allen’s best bet is probably the practice squad.

That’s not a bad way to cut your teeth as a future Pittsburgh Steeler, as Chris Hoke, Jordan Dangerfield Steve McLendon and James Harrison can attest to. Welcome to Steelers Nation Brian Allen.

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3rd Time the Charm? Steelers Draft Cam Sutton in 3rd Round, Cornerback from Tennessee

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Cam Sutton in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft, adding the cornerback from Tennessee to a secondary desperate need of depth at corner.

  • Cornerback has been at the top of the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix seemingly every season since the Steelers loss to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV.

Slow development and salary cap miscalculations (see letting Keenan Lewis walk in favor of counting on Cortez Allen) attempts to get by with waiver wire pickups (see Antwon Blake), late draft picks (see Trent Hawthorne) and just plain bad luck (Senquez Golson) have created this seemingly chronic need at cornerback.

Cam Sutton, Steelers draft Cam Sutton, Steelers 2017 3rd round pick Cam Sutton

Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 3rd round pick Cam Sutton

While Steelers 1st round pick from the 2016 draft Artie Burns did have a strong second half to his rookie year, the Steelers still need help at corner.

According to Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake, Cam Sutton brings Pittsburgh:

Cameron is a press corner and plays close to the line of scrimmage but can also play off. He does a good job of mirroring the receiver. He stays close, and that shows in his productivity as a corner for Tennessee over the years in his career. He has led his team and is the all-time leader in passes defensed for Tennessee. He knows how to cover, he stays close, and that is something that we’ve been looking for in the draft. In the third round, he was available and that’s why we took him.

Cam Sutton stands at 5-11 1/4, weighs 188 pounds, but has short 30-inch arms and a 4.52 40 time, which explains why he stayed on the bard so long. At the NFL Combine he only benched only 11 times but did post Combine workouts saw him post decent numbers in the vertical jump (34), broad jump (10-0) and 3-cone (6.81). His shuttle time of 4.23 is acceptable.

Here is what his highlight tape tells us:

As you can see, he also has experience returning punts, so perhaps the Steelers can finally send someone other than Antonio Brown out there.

Cam Sutton brings the Steelers a wealth of experience, having started for four straight seasons for the Tennessee Volunteers, playing as their team captain during his senior year. Leadership is another asset which he can potentially bring to the Steelers secondary, as indicated by his response to the question of whether he sees himself as a coach on the field:

Most definitely. I was voted captain my senior year, but that leadership role is something I embraced over time in my four years in college. Usually when I first start off in a new area or team, I kind of want to sit back and observe the guys that are around me and kind of get a feel for the personalities. But I am a guy that seeks out those guys, and I have a different way of talking to people. Not every player you’re able to talk to the same way. I’m able to decipher those guys. Some you can harp on, some you have to pull to the side. I’m able to do that. Whatever gets the guys going the right direction helps us all be successful.

By picking Cam Sutton in the third round the Steelers have set themselves up for a traning camp competition at cornerback. Artie Burn and Ross Cockrell will open camp as starters, with William Gay probably penciled in as their slot corner, assuming the Steelers do not move Gay to safety.

Sutton will have a shot to compete with Senquez Golson and Coty Sensabaugh for right to challenge Gay for the nickleback position.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Cam Sutton.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Matrix + a 1st Round Prediction

Well, well well, the big day is here! Per the clock on Steelers.com in just 10:27: 34 the 2017 NFL Draft will finally kick off (and lucky you, by the time you read this, it will even be closer)!

Since the final gun of Super Bowl LI, Steelers Nation has enjoyed?/experienced?/endured? Hundreds of hours of Mike Maycock and Mel Kipper Jr. clips, read dozens of mock drafts and perhaps even debated “grades” some scribes give to the Steelers performance in so-and-so’s latest mock.

  • Now all that’s left is, well, to pick the players and then bring them to St. Vincents to separate the Sidney Thornton’s from the Sean Davis‘s.
2017 NFL Draft, Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin Kevin Colbert Pre-draft press conference

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert hold their pre-Draft press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

OK, with that bit of cynicism about the excess hype that envelops the NFL Draft out of the way, let’s acknowledge that championships are built and lost on draft day.

  • And for those of you who’re dying to know this sites prediction for the Steelers first round draft pick, staff writer Tony Defeo is predicting it will be Kevin King, the 6’3″ cornerback out of Washington.

And, as we noted when the Steelers 2016 draft class was complete, Pittsburgh is now at a point where the success or failure on draft day will determine whether Ben Roethlisberger can bring home Lombardi Number Seven.

With the urgent of the 2017 NFL Draft in mind, Steel Curtain Rising has taken stock of the needs presented by each area of the Steelers Depth Chart.

Using our “exclusive Steelers Draft needs scale” we’ve determined that the Steelers needs at Quarterback, Defensive Line, and Tight End can be termed as Low-Moderate. The Steelers needs at Offensive line and Safety should be considered Moderate-Low. Inside linebacker clocks in at Moderate. Wide Receiver and Running back come in in at Moderate High. While Outside Linebacker and Cornerback are High Moderate needs for the Steelers in 2017.

Similar to past years, the Steelers draft needs are very tired, with some fairly high urgency needs to fill up top, very little in the middle, and a lot down at the bottom.

How to distinguish between them? Well, that’s where our Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Matrix comes into play.

Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Matrix

The purpose of the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix is to give a baseline between the Steelers areas of need should two players with the same grade become available at the same time.

Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Matrix

How did we arrive at this ranking? Fair question. To be honest, the Steelers needs for an outside linebacker or an “Edge Rusher” should he come in the form of a defensive end and a cornerback are both very high.

Even with James Harrison clocking in at age 39, the duo of Harrison and Bud Dupree arguably give the Steelers more on the field impact than does that of Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell.

  • But both Burns and Cockrell can be expected to start 16 games; James Harrison can’t.

However, anyone who would insist that Cornerback should take priority over Outside Linebacker or “Edge Rusher” wouldn’t get much of an argument for me, the Steelers need to boost their secondary as the AFC Championship so painfully illustrated.

And if Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Art Rooney II have the feeling that the next Dan Marino has dropped to them at 30, then by all means they should take him. But the reality is that isn’t going to happen, and the Steelers aren’t going to find the next Tom Brady in some later round. Given that, its best to focus on giving Ben the players he needs to win Lombardi Number Seven before he begins his “Life’s Work.”

Up until a few days ago, Steel Curtain Rising would have rated wide receiver as a higher need than running back, but Martavis Bryant‘s reinstatement changes that calculation ever so slightly. The Steelers would still be wise to add another reciever to help take heat off of Antonio Brown, but it would be wiser to invest a pick in ensuring they don’t start another playoff game with Fitzgerald Toussaint as Le’Veon Bell‘s top backup.

  • As always, let’s close comments about our Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Matrix with a caveat.

This chart is in no way meant to suggest the Steelers should draft for need. Quite the contrary. When you draft for need Troy Edwards (and perhaps Jarvis Jones) happen.

The Steelers 2014 NFL Draft Class provides the perfect example. Heading into the draft, the Steelers 2014 Draft Needs Matrix had rated Inside Linebacker as Moderate-Low given the quality and depth the Steelers had at the position.

Clearly, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert knew what they were doing.

Let’s hope that three years from now we can say the same thing about the decision the Steelers brain trust makes tonight. Until then let’s celebrate evening that will allow a select few young men to enjoy the movement they’ve dreamed of since they were old enough to hold a nerf football.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Cornerback: High-Moderate

The Steelers appear to have few pressing needs as they prepare for the 2017 NFL Draft, which begins this Thursday evening.

But while Pittsburgh’s needs might seem to be in-line with a team that just made it to the AFC title game, but of course the goal is to get past the AFC title game. And for that to happen in 2017, that means the Steelers must upgrade at certain areas in the draft.

A perfect example of this could be at cornerback.

Artie Burns, Steelers 2017 draft needs cornerback

For the first time in 20 years the Steelers picked a cornerback first in 2016. Could they do it again in 2017? Photo credit: Pennlive.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Starters 

The Steelers finally addressed this need with a very high draft choice a year ago, when they made Artie Burns out of Miami their first round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. And after slowly working his way into the lineup, Artie Burns started nine games (mostly all down the stretch) and recorded three interceptions and a fairly impressive 13 passes defensed.

Alongside Burns at the other cornerback spot is Ross Cockrell, the fourth-year man out of Duke who was a fourth round pick by the Bills in the 2014 NFL Draft. Cockrell survived one season in Buffalo before being cut right before the start of 2015 regular season. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and Co. quickly snatched Ross Cockrell off the scrap heap, and he appeared in 15 games, started seven and recorded two interceptions and 11 passes defensed.

A year ago, Ross Cockrell was a mainstay at the cornerback spot, starting all 16 games and often being matched up against the other team’s top receiver–including the Bengals A.J. Green.  Ross Cockrell acquitted himself quite nicely; while he didn’t have any interceptions, he notched 14 passes defensed and 47 tackles.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Backups

A dependable fixture at the starting and slot positions for many years, veteran William Gay‘s play seemed to drop off as the 2016 season progressed.

After starting a combined 60 games between 2011-2015, William Gay only started nine games last year, although he appeared in all 16. He mostly assumed his best-suited role as a slot corner near season’s end, but at age 32, one has to wonder just how much he can still contribute to a Pittsburgh secondary that’s getting younger and more talented with each passing season.

The youngster who ostensibly could replace William Gay as the slot corner and ultimately Ross Cockrell as the starter opposite Burns is Senquez Golson, the third-year man out of Ole Man, who the Steelers picked in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

Actually, to call Senquez Golson a third-year man is a little disingenuous, considering he has yet to play a down of football in either the preseason or regular season and has barely even participated in his first two training camps at Latrobe.

A season ago, Senquez Golson suffered a Lisfranc injury just days into training camp, a sprain that required surgery. While Golson was eligible to come off the PUP list mid-way through the season, the lone benefactor of that rule was second-year linebacker Bud Dupree, who was activated near the end of the season.

  • The Steelers actually kept Golson on the active roster for a few weeks, until injuries forced him on to IR.

Rounding out the Steelers depth chart at corner are Coty Sensabaugh, the journeyman Pittsburgh picked up as a free-agent from the Giants; Al-Hajj Shabazz; and a host of down-the-liners–including Brandon Dixon, Mike Hilton, Greg Ducre and Devonte Johnson.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Cornerback 

As a restricted free agent, Ross Cockrell languished in free-agency with little to no interest after the Steelers slapped a fourth round tender on him earlier in the spring.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs cornerback

Meanwhile, Senquez Golson could go either way. Golson could end up being this year’s Sean Spence, and make a legitimate case for being the NFL’s “comeback player of the year.” OR Senquez Golson could end up as this generation’s Kris Farris, as this site suggested last spring.

As for William Gay, again, his play declined as the 2016 season progressed, and he’s certainly not getting any younger (and neither is Ben Roethlisberger, if you get my drift), although he perhaps could continue to be effective at safety, as has been rumored.

With that in mind, while the secondary seems to be improving each season–the defense finished 16th in passing a year ago, after placing 30th in 2015 — the Steelers need better performance out of their defensive backfield if they’re to bring home Lombardi Number Seven in 2017 instead of being an AFC Championship also-ran.

With prospects like Marlon Humphrey out of Alabama, Gareon Conley of Ohio State or USC’s Adoree Jackson possibly available near the end of the the first round, this wouldn’t be a bad year to double-down and go cornerback for the second year in a row.

Given that, the Steelers 2017 draft need status for the Steelers at cornerback is High-Moderate.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line: Low-Moderate

Getting “Younger and stronger” on defensive line was one of Mike Tomlin’s stated objectives when the Steelers 2008 off season began. As it was, the Steelers would continue to open with the same starting threesome for the next 3 seasons, and it wasn’t until the beginning of the 2015 season that Steelers defensive line had been completely renewed.

The question heading into the 2017 NFL Draft is whether the Steelers want to stand pat or continue that renewal process.

Stephon Tuitt, Tyrod Taylor, Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Defensive line

Tyrod Taylor is road kill in Stephon Tuitt’s wake. Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via Bleacher Report

Steelers Depth Chart @ Defensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starters

Two studs in the form of defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt bookend the Steelers defensive line.

During his first two years with the Steelers Cam Heyward doubters were easy to find, but in 2013 he beat out Ziggy Hood for the starting job and since then has established himself as one of the best defensive ends in the league. Cameron Heyward has 25 sacks, 18 passes defensed and a pair of forced fumbles and fumble recoveries to his name, but staistics do not do the man justice.

Week in and week out, Cameron Heyward makes the types of plays that don’t always show up on the stat sheet – unless you count the Steelers keeping more points on the board than their opponents.

Injuries to Brett Keisel thrust Stephon Tuitt into the starting line up late in the 2014 season, and no one has looked back since. With Cameron Heyward out for the second half of 2016, Stephon Tuitt stepped up as a leader of the unit, and despite Cam’s absence, the Steelers defense improved during the latter part of the season.

If you’re surprised to discover that Javon Hargrave didn’t start the entire year, so was I. He had to wait until week to get his first start, but held on to the job from that point in the season, and established himself along side Artie Burns and Sean Davis as one of the three rookies who made an immediate impact to improve the Steelers defense.

Like his fellow rookies, something clicked for Hargrave during the second half of the season, as Hargrave got his first sack and first fumble recovery in the Steelers road win over the Cleveland Browns. Hargrave got another sack in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts, and also got to Tom Brady early in the AFC Championship game loss.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Defensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Finding depth on the Steelers defensive line has been a challenge for Pittsburgh, forcing Johnny Mitchell give his starters more snaps than he would like.

  • In 2016 the Steelers defensive line took a step in the right direction, as L.T. Walton stepped up in Cam Heyward’s absence as did Ricardo Mathews.

The Steelers have taken another step in that direction by signing free agent Tyson Alualu, a former first round pick out of Jacksonville who can play either at defensive end or a nose tackle.

Tyson Alualu’s arrival might spell the end for backup nose tackle Daniel McCullers. The Shady Tree offers and imposing physical presence, standing at 6’7” 352 pounds and his snap count percentage did jump from 9.5% in 2015 to 17.4% in 2016, which is good, but given all of the injuries the Steelers suffered on the defensive line, you’d expect to see McCullers getting even more playing time.

Injuries forced practice squad player John Maxey into the action in late in 2016 and Maxley did his part to help prove Mike Tomlin’s “The Standard is the Standard.”

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Defensive Line

The Steelers quest to rebuild their defensive line took longer than expected, although part of that is due to the longevity of Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton (although whiffing on Ziggy Hood didn’t help the cause.)Steelers 2017 Draft Needs defensive line

  • Yet, even after the Steelers found three competent starters on defensive line, they struggled to back them up.

Time was that when the Steelers had to play without either Cameron Heyward or Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers run defense became a sieve and the team lost. That fact seemed to doom the Steelers chances after Cameron Heyward went on injured reserve in 2016.

However, the rest of the defensive line responded and not only survived but thrived despite Cam Heyward’s absence. That shows that the Pittsburgh Steelers have real depth on their defensive line, and the unit got deeper with the addition of Alualu Tyson.

Let’s be clear, in the contemporary NFL, the difference between an outside linebacker and a defensive end is getting blurred by the concept of “Edge Rusher” and that’s not even taking to account that the Steelers depend on their nickel package, which includes four down lineman, all the more frequently.

  • Edge Rusher” is clearly a Steelers priority, and if they find someone who falls into that category who happens to play defensive line, then the rating you’re about to read is rendered moot.

However, if we’re confining our conversation to conventional 3-4 defensive lineman then the Steelers depth chart is as solid as it has been during the Mike Tomlin era, and Steelers draft need at defensive line can be considered Low-Moderate.

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Ross Cockrell Signs Restricted Free Agent Tender – Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

Dan Rooney’s passing might have consumed the attention of Steelers Nation for the better part of six days but the business of football continues. On Monday Steelers restricted free agent cornerback Ross Cockrell signed his one year tender, ending any possibility that he would defect away from Pittsburgh.

  • The news comes with the proverbial glass half-empty half-full catch.

On the one hand, Ross Cockrell has made tremendous strides since the Steelers claimed him off of waviers in August 2015. So it is good that to know that he his continues on his upward trajectory the Steelers will benefit, at least for another season.

Ross Cockrell, Ross Cockrell interception, Steelers vs Ravens

Ross Cockrell brings down his first interception in the Steelers September loss to the Ravens. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

On the flip side, there’s the simple fact that 31 other NFL teams, many of which are flush with salary cap space, didn’t think enough of his current talent or “upside” to part with a 4th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft to secure his services.

  • What’s a law abiding citizen of Steelers Nation to conclude?

It says here that Ross Cockrell returning to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017 is a good thing. When Ross Cockrell arrived in Pittsburgh, the common response was “Who?”

On the face of it, the fact that the Steelers picked a player who’d been waived in the first round of training cuts made it appear like the Steelers were continuing to try to fill their need at cornerback on the cheap, as they’d done with the Brice McCains, Antwon Blakes and Brandon Boykins.

  • But as Bob Labriola cautioned on Asked and Answered, its hard to judge a DB soley on tape because you don’t know what he’s being asked to do.

The wisdom came from the late Bill Nunn Jr., the legendary Steelers scout, and had Nunn lived to see Cockrell play, he’d have been proud, as Cockrell made two interceptions as a rookie and recovered the fumble that Ryan Shazier caused in the 2015 AFC Wild Card game against the Bengals, enabling Ben Roethlisberger’s heroic comeback.

The Steelers promoted Cockrell to starter in 2016, and while he did not come away with any interceptions, he did have 14 defensed passes, including a key one in the December win over the Bengals.

A lot of critics suggested the Steelers were low balling Ross Cockrell by only giving him an original round tender, and many suggested that this signified that they the franchise really didn’t regard him as starter material. That may be the case, but the Steelers actual risk factor was low, as they retained the right of first refusal.

The gamble they made with Cockrell really was no different than the ones they made with Emmanuel Sanders and Steve McLendon in 2013.

  • Both men returned to start, and both men remain starters in Denver and New York.

Ross Cockrell returning to the Steelers is a decidedly half full proposition for Pittsburgh. Had the Steelers lost him, they’d almost have been forced to take a cornerback in the 1st round of the 2017 NFL Draft as Artie Burns has only played on year, William Gay is fading and newly signed Coty Sensabaugh remains unproven.  After that, the Steelers cornerback cupboard is pretty thin – unless you’re ready to count on Senquez Golson.

The Steelers should and probably will take a cornerback with one of their first 3 if not first 2 picks in the 2017 NFL Draft, but having Ross Cockrell back for a year relieves Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin of the need to reach.

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Third Times Charm for Pittsburgh @ Cornerback. Steelers Sign Coty Sensabaugh to 2 Year Contract

Word was the Steelers were planning to open free agency making a play on a starting cornerback. Whether the Steelers did have the Bengals Dre Kirkpatrick in their sights or not, the deal never materialized.

Then the Steelers wined and dined Davon House who became the NFL equivalent of a date who ignores you and instead dances with all of the other guys at the party – he signed with the Green Bay Packers while he was visiting with the Steelers.

  • The third time was the charm for Pittsburgh in their quest to add a cornerback in free agency as the Steelers signed Coty Sensabaugh.
Coty Sensabaugh, Steelers slot cornerbacks, Steelers free agency 2017

Coty Sensabaugh has 194 career tackles 2 picks in 72 career games. Photo Credit: Samuel Stringer, Icon Sportswire

The Tennessee Titans picks Coty Sensabaugh in the 4th round of the 2012 NFL Draft and he played in Nashville for four years, making 27 starts and recording 2 interceptions, including a pick six on Jameis Winston‘s first career pass.

A year ago Coty Sensabaugh was inking a three-year, $15 million contract with the Los Angeles Rams only to see the Rams cut him in October. However, Sensabaugh didn’t stay unemployed for long, and was signed by the New York Giants where he remained for the rest of the season.

Coty Sensabaugh’s Impact on the Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback

The Steelers are projecting Coty Sensabaugh as a nickel/slot back. William Gay occupied that role for much of 2016, but the veteran is showing signs of slowing and the Steelers would like to replace him. Artie Burns is set to return as the Steelers starter at cornerback, and opposite him the Steelers had restricted free agent Ross Cockrell in 2016, who could still return to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers will also bring Al-Hajj Shabazz to training camp as well as 2015’s 2nd round pick Senquez Golson whose NFL career consists of 2 and a half training camp practices. The Steelers are also expected to draft a cornerback in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, Sensabaugh declared “I came here to help these guys get two games better,” while affirming that the Keith Butler’s defensive system is similar to that of Dick LeBeau’s whom he played with down in Tennessee.

Like Justin Hunter, the free agent wide receiver the Steelers signed last week, Coty Sensabaugh also has a relationship with Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchack.

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Thoughts on Mike Tomlin, Lawrence Timmons and Steelers Head Coaches First Draft Picks

Lawrence Timmons decision to sign with the Miami Dolphins marked a sad day in Steelers Nation. For ten years Lawrence Timmons had been a mainstay of the Steelers defense, first giving Dick LeBeau and the Keith Butler a durable, reliable presence in the middle of the field.

  • Lawrence Timmons had also been Mike Tomlin’s first draft pick.

Commentators were quick to assert that a head coach losing his maiden draft selection to the free agent market means something, and it does, but just what does it actually mean?

Lawrence Timmons, James Farrior, Ryan Clark, Brett Swain, Super Bowl XLV

Lawrence Timmons goes for a loose ball in Super Bowl XLV. Photo Credit: Streeter Lecka, Getty Images via Zimbio

It sounds sexy to say that a new head coach defines his legacy with his first draft pick and sometimes it’s true. Jimmy Johnson certainly defined his legacy in Dallas for the better by picking Troy Aikman just as Norv Turner did the opposite by picking Heath Shuler.

  • But in other cases the analogy falls flat.

Does anyone really want to try to argue that Bill Walsh in any way defined his legacy in San Francisco by picking making James Owens his first pick in 1979?

Which brings us to the question – how, and to what extent does Lawrence Timmons define Mike Tomlin’s legacy in Pittsburgh?

Steelers Head Coaches & Their First Picks

Steelers history gives a mixed bag when it comes to head coaches and their first picks. And this is a lot more difficult discussion to have in Pittsburgh than say in Cleveland or Washington, as the Steelers have only had 3 head coaches since the end of the Lyndon Johnson administration.

Buddy Parker’s first picks was Len Dawson, which is painfully appropriate for his legacy. Dawson is one of various quarterbacks the Steelers brought into the league that won Super Bowls and/or NFL Championships for someone other than Pittsburgh.

Bill Austin’s first pick ever was a fullback by the name of Dick Leftridge who played all of one season and had a total of 8 yards rushing and got cut the next summer for show up overweight.

Some have suggested that Dick Leftridge could have been a victim of Bill Austin’s racism, while another source consulted to verify this argues that Leftride did in fact lack  the commitment to conditioning. Either way Austin’s pick of Leftridge was certainly indicative of the Steelers failure with the draft.

Joe Greene, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Sr.

Chuck Noll and Joe Greene Shake hands in front of Art Rooney Sr. in 1982. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On the flip side, picking Joe Greene first most certainly defined Chuck Noll’s legacy as Joe Greene’s arrival in Pittsburgh was the fulcrum that turned a perennial loser on to the path to being the greatest football team in the history of the sport.

In contrast, assessing the impact of Bill Cowher’s decision to pick (along with Tom Donahoe) Leon Searcy on The Chin’s legacy is a little more nebulous. To a certain degree, picking Searcy signaled a full-throated embrace of physical, power football that characterized the Cowher years in Pittsburgh.

  • But would anyone ever argue that Leon Searcy was a legacy defining pick?

I daresay the answer is no.

2007 Tomlin Takes Charge, Picks Lawrence Timmons First

The Steelers turned heads in the 2007 NFL Draft when they picked two outside linebackers, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley with picks number one and number two. (Yes, the Steelers originally picked Timmons as an outside linebacker.)

Unfortunately, Lawrence Timmons early career doesn’t give opponents of the “Tomlin’s only won with Cowher’s players” nonsense much ammunition. Timmons played very little as a rookie and, while he made impressive contributions in spot duty in 2008, most of those came at outside linebacker in relief of James Harrison. Timmons started in 2009, but the fact that he split time with Keyaron Fox had some fans labeling him a bust.

  • But if Timmons took a few years to find his NFL footing, he exploded in 2010.
Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Steelers vs Titans, Bo Scaife

Lawrence Timmons slams Titans Bo Scaife as James Harrison looks on in Pittsburgh’s 2010 win over Tennessee. Photo Credit: New Pittsburgh Courier

And from 2010 onwards, Lawrence Timmons clearly established himself as a Mike Tomlin talent acquisition success story, even if he had a subpar 2011 campaign. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell observed:

Timmons was explosive. And productive. And he played week in and week out. Timmons started the last 111 games (counting postseason) that the Steelers played. In his eight regular seasons as the starter, he averaged 95 tackles, 4 sacks, 5 passes defensed and 1.4 forced fumbles per season.

Mike Tomlin likes to draft his players, especially premium picks, young and the statistics that Jim Wexell cites show just how effective that strategy has been. The Steelers win 8-8 reloading seasons and the “4 seasons between playoff wins” chant were frustrating for sure.

In seminal 2014 article Déjà vu All Over Again , Jim Wexell compared the post-2011 Steelers to the 1998-2000 Steeler teams and argued that the presence of Ben Roethlisberger as opposed to Kordell Stewart under center is what explains Pittsburgh’s ability to keep the franchise’s head above water.

He’s right of course, but quarterbacks can’t carry a team on their own, and Lawrence Timmons steadfast playmaking presence on the Steelers defense during those years was arguably just as important as Roethlisberger’s was to the defense during that time span.

Lawrence Timmons, Thad Lewis, Lawrence Timmons sack Thad Lewis, Steelers vs Browns,

Lawrence Timmons downs Thad Lewis of the Browns in the penultimate play of 2012. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Think back to the Pittsburgh’s 2012 finale. The Steelers limped into the game against the Browns with an 7-8 record and, with the Steelers defending a two touchdown lead late in the fourth quarter, Lawrence Timmons ended the game with dramatic back-to-back sacks.

It was almost as if Timmons was proclaiming to the rest of the league, “Yes, the Steelers are down, but we’re not out.”

Lawrence Timmons and Tomlin’s Legacy

Lawrence Timmons continued to be the Steelers best defender for the next several seasons. By 2014 one could argue that Cameron Heyward had taken over that role, and by 2016 with Cam Heyward out, Ryan Shazier had established himself as Pittsburgh’s Alpha Male on defense.

  • But Lawrence Timmons continued to dominate, as 2016 second half surge proved.

Despite losing its best player, and despite starting rookies Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave the Steelers defense staged and impressive turn around during the second half of 2016, and Lawrence was a big part of it coming up with two sacks and two interceptions in the last 7 games, followed by his twin sacks to close the win over the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs.

It is just as unfortunate it the game marked Lawrence Timmons final game as a Pittsburgh Steeler. If Mike Tomlin is to reach the Mountain Top again, he’ll have to do it without the Law Dog.

  • In that sense, Lawrence Timmons’ impact on Mike Tomlin’s legacy falls somewhere between that of his predecessors.

Chuck Noll reached the Mountain Top with Joe Greene, and never sniffed it without him. Leon Searcy helped Bill Cowher broach the pinnacle in Super Bowl XXX, but the time The Chin summited in Super Bowl XL Searcy was a distant memory.

Mike Tomlin and Lawrence Timmons might have only reached the Mountain Top once together in Super Bowl XLIII, but Lawrence Timmons did so much to keep the Mountain Top in reach during the rest of his time in Pittsburgh.

And for that, Steelers Nation says, “Thank You Lawrence Timmons.”

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