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.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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16 Defining Moments of the Steelers 2016 Season

Just stop and think for one moment of everyone and everything that comprises the product of an team’s NFL season? It’s a process the delivers the collective sum total of the actions taken by hundreds of players, dozens of scouts and coaches and scores of front office personnel .

  • Trying to quantify that endeavor is as daunting as it is foolish.

While we’re not quite so ambitious here at Steel Curtain Rising, we have tried to single out the 16 Defining Moments of the Steelers 2016 Season.

Antonio Brown, Zach Orr, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers 2016 season defining moments, antonio brown christmas touchdown ravens

Antonio Brown’s last second touchdown vs the Ravens on Christmas was a defining moment for the 2016 Steelers. Photo Credit: Fred Vuich, AP.

1. Steelers Sign Alejandro Villanaueva

This moment of course came 2 years before the 2016 season even started and, in the predigital age, only would have warranted an inch or two of column space, if even that had it not been for Alejandro Villanueva’s Army background and service in Afghanistan.

  • But Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Mike Munchak saw something they linked in the young man, decided to give him a shot at a new position.

Two years later that move paid dividends as Kelvin Beachum left, while Ryan Harris and Jerald Hawkins got hurt – yet thanks to Villanueva’s development, the Steelers offensive line played perhaps its best football of the Tomlin era.

2. Heath Miller Retires

After a highly depleted 2015 Steelers roster came SO close to upsetting the Denver Broncos at Mile High in the AFC Divisional playoff game, it was tempting to look to 2016 and imagine the team picking up just where it left off.

However, as Mike Tomlin reminds the media and his team at the end of every season, each year brings a new start and there is no carry over.

And Heath Miller’s retirement was the first example of this. The move, while not surprising, wasn’t anticipated and, if Heath Miller was no longer a threat to stretch the field, Heath Miller gave Ben Roethlisberger about as dependable target as a quarterback can get.

3. Martavis Bryant Suspended

If Heath Miller’s retirement was a subtle but sobering reminder that the Steelers won’t field the same team in 2016 that they finished with in 2015, Martavis Bryant’s latest suspension of substance abuse made the point with shocking clarity.

While consistency eluded Martavis Bryant during the 2015 regular season, during the 2015 playoffs Bryant showed that he had Jerry Rice-like transformation talent.

His suspension showed that he also had Randy Moss off the field discipline issues that could prevent him from realizing his full potential.

4. Steelers Release Cortez Allen

The Steelers decision to release Cortez Allen 2 weeks before the 2016 NFL Draft hardly ranks as a surprise, given Mike Tomlin’s comments on Allen at the 2015 season’s end. But cutting Cortez Allen, along with the decisions to let Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin depart as free agents, and not bring back safety Will Allen for yet another year, showed that Tomlin, Colbert, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake were going all in on renewing the Steelers secondary.

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Sean Davis and Artie Burns at Steelers rookie mini-camp. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

5. Steelers Draft Burns, Davis and Hargrave

The Steelers need to rebuild on defense has been well documented, particularly their failure at rejuvenating the secondary.

The Steelers went into the 2016 NFL Draft with a plan to boost the defense, and Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin never flinched drafting Artie Burns in the first round, Sean Davis in the second round and Javon Hargrave in the second round.

The move paid handsome dividends as each player stepped up to make important contributions to the Steelers 9 game winning streak that closed the season.

6. David Johnson Returns

In June the Steelers surprised everyone by signing David Johnson, the final pick from the 2009 Draft Class who’d spent 2014 and 2015 with the San Diego Chargers. The move telegraphed Matt Spaeth’s release, further reinforcing the turnover theme.

However, as training camp dragged on, and Ladarius Green came no closer to practicing, it was clear that David Johnson would give the Steelers a veteran presence and solid blocking ability to a very green crops of tight ends.

7. Senquez Golson injures Lisfranc

During the off season, Mike Tomlin spoke glowingly about Senquez Golson, the cornerback the Steelers took in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft who lost his rookie season to shoulder surgery.

  • The Steelers were counting on Golson to do big things in 2016.

Unfortunately, Senquez Golson’s 2016 season amounted to two padded practices in change as he injured his Lisfranc. The Steelers kept Golson on the active roster, but ultimately had to put him on injured reserve, further highlighting the magnitude of the risk the Steelers were taking with their secondary.

8. Steelers Sign Cobi Hamilton

When the Steelers signed Cobi Hamilton on August 5th they were picking up a guy who’d bounced around to several practices squads over the last three years. By the look of it, they were doing little more than picking up another body to help them get through training camp drills.

  • But Hamilton did well enough to make the final roster.

And if Hamilton did struggle during the Steelers AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, the rookie effectively functioned as the Steelers 3rd wide receiver during their 9 game winning streak.

Cobi Hamiltion, defining moments steelers 2016, steelers vs browns, steelers new years overtime win browns

Cobi Hamilton catches game winner in overtime over Browns in Steelers New Years Day win. Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham, AP via Herald Star

9. Markus Wheaton Gets Hurt in Steelers Preseason win over Saints

The Steelers preseason win over the New Orleans Saints served as their dress rehearsal for the season, and by all accounts the Pittsburgh passed with flying colors.

Steel Curtain Rising admits to being somewhat of a homer for Markus Wheaton, but Wheaton played very well down the stretch in 2015 and the Steelers sure could have used him during the second half of 2016. Alas, Wheaton did return for a 3 game stretch in early part of the season, but was lost for good in week 11.

10. Le’Veon Bell Returns

Le’Veon Bell started 2013 injured, finished 2014 injured, began 2015 on suspension and finished the year on IR. Again, he began 2016 serving a suspension. So let’s remember that there WERE legitimate question as to whether this young back could deliver on the field when the Steelers hosted the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday Night Football.

  • Le’Veon Bell steamrolled the Chiefs for 178 all-purpose yards.

In doing so, the young running back put the NFL on notice that stopping the Steelers would mean stopping him.

11. Big Ben Gets Injured in Miami

Its no secret that Ben Roethlisberger remains the one, indispensable player on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster. His injury, in addition to the coach’s decision to abandon the run early, cost the Steelers the game in Miami, and arguably cost the Steelers on the road to the Ravens. Those losses prevented the Steelers from securing a first round bye, which proved costly.

12. Ryan Shazier Returns to Full Health

The naysayers in Steelers Nation have long been down on Ryan Shazier for being injury prone. The fact is that, with on disrespect to Vince Williams, the Steelers missed his athleticism during the middle portion of the season.

  • Shazier returned to his status as a full time starter against the Ravens.

And while the Steelers defense didn’t pick up its performance immediately, within two weeks Ryan Shazier was back to making splash plays all over the field, and by the season’s end, he was easily the Steelers best defender.

James Harrison, James Harrison color rush, defining moments steelers 2016

James Harrison’s return to full time starter helped fuel the 2016 Steelers nine game winning streak. Photo Credit: USA Today sports via 247 Sports

13. James Harrison Returns to Full Time Stater

Since James Harrison returned from retirement in 2014 the Steelers have rotated him in some form or fashion, attempting to groom Jarvis Jones to take over the role full time. But Jones flinched on the critical play of the Steelers loss to the Cowboys, and Mike Tomlin wasted little time in promoting James Harrison to a full time starter.

  • All Harrison did was lead the team in sacks in his 7 starts.

More important, James Harrison held transform the Steelers rush defense from a liability into an asset. As Mike Tomlin rhetorically questioned when he announced the move, “What are we saving James Harrison for?” A playoff run, which is what the Steelers got.

14. Steelers Christmas Comeback over the Ravens

Yes, the Steelers needed this one to clinch the AFC North division in an all or nothing shot. Yes, this epic Christmas game was worth of narration by NFL Films legend John Facenda, yes Antonio Brown last minute stretch was an act that revealed his sheer greatness.

  • But there’s something more important that happened on Christmas 2016 for the Steelers.

The Pittsburgh Steelers snapped a 5 game losing streak to the Baltimore Ravens with this win. And while that hardly reestablishes the Steelers as the alpha male of the division, a six straight loss would have conferred that status to the Ravens.

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Le’Veon Bell breaks the Steelers playoff rushing record vs. the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via CBS Pittsburgh Local

15. Le’Veon Bell Breaks Steelers Playoff Rushing Record. Twice

When Le’Veon Bell broke the Steelers single game playoff rushing record the first time this, we stopped and reflected on what it meant. Then Bell went out and did it again in the following week.

On an individual level, this feat highlights just how special of talent Le’Veon Bell has. However, on a team level this also seemed to underscore that the Steelers were going to go as far as Le’Veon Bell would take them….

16. Steelers get Thumped by Patriots in AFC Championship (Again.)

…And Le’Veon Bell’s ride would end early in the first quarter against the New England Patriots, where the Steelers would fall 36-17 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the score indicates.

For all of the growth they made and for all of the adversity they overcame, the 2016 Steelers simply weren’t Super Bowl worthy, as their latest AFC Championship loss to the Patriots revealed.
We’re wrapping up coverage of the Steelers 2016 season this week. Check back for their regular season report card and season summary.

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Pittsburgh Signs Artie Burns, Highlighting Steelers 2016 Secondary Gamble

Week 3 of OTA’s saw the Steelers sign Artie Burns to his rookie contract, and while the “delay” of Pittsburgh signing their 1st round cornerback passed for “news” the fact was that the outcome was never in doubt. However, the Artie Burns signing does highlight a rather unique gamble the Kevin Colbert is taking with the Steelers secondary.

  • The outcome of this gamble is open to doubt however, and the Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes rest on its success.
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Artie Burns @ Steelers OTA’s with the ball in his hands; Photo Credit Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

A few numbers highlight just how dramatic of a gamble the Steelers braintrust is taking with their 2016 secondary:

  • 182 games, 42 starts and 17 interceptions vs. 1 snap

The first set of numbers represents the total number of NFL games, starts and interceptions made by Cortez Allen, Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin and the second number is the cumulative NFL experience of Doran Grant, Senquez Golson and Artie Burns.

  • To say that the Steelers have embraced a youth movement in the secondary mildly understates things.

William Gay is a proven commodity and Ross Cockrell has some solid tape, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, and Carnell Lake have gone all in on their calculation that they can perform addition by subtraction in the Steelers secondary.

Success in the NFL salary cap era often boils down to winning more calculated risks than your peers do. The Steelers are no stranger to this. The Steelers played the entire 2015 season with three starter capable defensive lineman, Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Steve McLendon and the unit was a defensive strength. On the offensive line, they trusted that Alejandro Villanueva was sufficient at offensive tackle and that gamble paid off too.

Is Artie Burns the answer for the Steelers at cornerback? Here’s an answer you won’t often see on Steelers blogs – I have no idea. Some pre-draft rankings placed a firm 1st round grade on him. Others had him pegged as a 3rd or even 5th rounder.

Neal Coolong of USA Today’s Steelers Wire contends that Artie Burns lacks both a strong tape and athletic measurable. In contrast, Matt C. Steel on Steel City Insider, while conceding that Burns must develop, goes as far as to compare some of Burns measurable to Darrell Revis.

  • As with all draft picks, time whether Artie Burns was a steal, a solid value pick or a reach.

But in some ways that misses the point, because the Steelers 2016 gamble on the secondary Doesn’t just depend on Artie Burns delivering, but on Senquez Golson and Doran Grant showing themselves as players as well.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are one NFL organization that thinks long term, so the success or failure of this gamble won’t be measured solely by how well Burns, Golson and Grant play this season. But the ability of the Steelers to improve their pass defense in 2016 does likely rest on these gentleman’s shoulders.

And to bring home Lombardi Number Seven in 2016, the Steelers pass defense must get better….

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Senquez Golson’s MRI Highlights Steelers Precarious Situation at Cornerback

Sometimes it only takes one tweet to send the hearts a flutter in Steelers Nation. And so it is with the Steelers secondary:

News of a Senquez Golson MRI is not encouraging…..

As the Observer-Reporter’s Dale Lolley indicated, “But Golson was at the facility and then left. I learned that he was leaving to get an MRI.” There are a couple of interesting points to this. First, none of the other credentialed reporters appear to have picked up the story, so if this story has legs, then Lolley will have made another Steelers secondary scoop, just as he did when he broke the news of Shamarko Thomas’ benching.

  • Second, as Lolley points out, this move could be a precaution.

Senquez Golson, who was the Steelers second round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, lost his rookie season to shoulder surgery. Thus far Golson has participated fully in Steelers OTA’s and has reported felling well.

While fans and bloggers really don’t have enough information to make informed judgment, to an outsider’s eye, the Steelers do sometimes seem to procrastinate when it comes to medical issues. In 2012, James Harrison had knee surgery deep into training camp, slowing his start for the rest of the year. Last season, both Bruce Gradkowski and Mike Adams showed up at training camp on the PUP list, and both ended up needing surgery.

  • So perhaps the Steelers are just being cautious with Golson.

If so, then the Senquez Golson MRI story will quickly fade from memory before the first drop of lighter fluid douses a brick of charcoal to inaugurate the first Memorial Day cookout. But if there is fire behind the smoke created by Senquez Golson’s MRI then the Steelers will have a real problem on their hands.

William Gay now qualifies as the Dean of the Steelers secondary, with Ross Cockrell, he of the 7 starts, standing as the unit’s second most experienced cornerback. After that, the only other experienced corner the Steelers have is Donald Washington, the same Donald Washington who last played an NFL game in 2011 and had trouble holding on to a roster spot in the CFL.

  • So be it. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin went all in on Steelers youth movement at cornerback during free agency.

And Brandon Boykin getting cut last week lent a lot of credibility to their addition by subtraction philosophy. Roster building in the salary cap era involves making calculated risks by weighing trade offs and opportunity costs. Sometimes these workout, sometimes they don’t.

A year ago, the Steelers lost Kelvin Beachum and lucked out when Alejandro Villanueva stayed healthy and played above the line. Yet, injuries to Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams have forced the Steelers to start their 4th string running back in their last three post-season contests. And who can forget the offensive line depth disaster that led to the 2013 Steelers 0-4 start.

Hopefully, Golson’s MRI is nothing more than the NFL equivalent of a “Well baby visit,” because this is one spot on the depth chart where the Steelers have little margin for error.

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Steelers Sign Sean Davis – Is Pittsburgh Safe at Safety?

The big “news” out of Pittsburgh last week saw the Steelers sign safety Sean Davis, their second round pick from the 2016 NFL Draft (Brandon Boykin also made other “news” but let’s save that for another post.)

Signing draft picks, even first rounders, is basically a pro forma exercise following the rookie wage scale mandated by 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement, so much that some rookies are even forgoing agents. So the essential question behind the Steelers signing Sean Davis is simple:

  • Are the Steelers safe at safety with Sean Davis?

Sean Davis comes to the Steelers after a successful NCAA career with the Maryland Terrapins, where he played at both safety and cornerback. It was no secret that the Steelers needed a safety heading into the draft, and many fans wanted Pittsburgh to draft Vonn Bell out of OSU.

Matt C. Steel of Jim Wexell’s Steel City Insider argues that Davis is the better pick than Vonn Bell:

…I don’t think Neal will ever be more than a solid coverage safety. He will hit you like Ronnie Lott, but Davis isn’t exactly shy when getting a ball carrier to the ground. It’s one of the reasons I wasn’t as high on Bell, who doesn’t bring the wood when tackling. Bell has the average size of a corner with average athletic measurables. If the Steelers want a safety to match-up physically with the likes of Rob Gronkowski and Tyler Eifert, Davis is the better choice.

If Steel’s sources are correct, the Steelers actually had Keanu Neal as the top safety of the 2016 NFL Draft, but Neal was long gone by the time the Steelers picked at 25, having been taken by the Atlanta Falcons at 17. In Steel’s view however, Pittsburgh didn’t miss much:

But there was only one safety in the draft over 6-0 with 4.4 speed, top-ranked agility, corner experience and the physicality to explode through a player’s soul with a hard hit. That was Davis. And Davis wasn’t coming off an ACL injury, either.

Those are all positives, and unlike the Steelers first round pick Artie Burns, most of the draft nics are hailing the pick of Sean Davis. Fair enough. But, as Art Rooney Sr. once cautioned, reflecting back on the franchise’s first 40 years of futility, “Everyone’s a winner on draft day.”

  • To that end, Sean Davis arrives in Pittsburgh on the heels of a long Steelers search for stability at safety.

Actually, that over states things. From 2004 to 2013, the Steelers Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Chris Hope provided plenty of stability for the Steelers at safety. The problem is that the Steelers succession plan at safety has seen one miss fire after another.

The Steelers drafted Anthony Smith in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft with an eye towards paring him with Polamalu. Smith however preferred to showboat, make trash talk he couldn’t back up and injure his own teammates in practice. Steelers discarded Smith after his rookie contract was up, and drafted Ryan Mundy and signed Will Allen as a free agent.

Alas, that experiment ended during the Steelers 2012 self-destruction at Oakland’s black hole, when Mundy made an illegal hit on Darrius Heyward-Bey (video available as of 5/21/16).

The Steelers turned to Will Allen for the balance of the 2012 season, and let Mundy go, perhaps in err, as a free agent. Their next move was to trade up to get Shamarko Thomas in the 2013 NFL Draft. A year later, they let Ryan Clark depart as a free agent, and signed Mike Mitchell as a free agent.

Between injuries and unfamiliarity of playing with Polamalu, Mitchell struggled in 2014 in Pittsburgh, but Michael Mitchell played well in 2015. As for Thomas….

  • Shamarko Thomas got snaps early in his rookie season, but since then his seasonal snap counts seem best measured in single digits.

Ostensably, Sean Davis will start on the depth chart behind both Shamarko Thomas and Ross Ventrone on the Steelers depth chart at safety, but the real man to beat is Robert Golden. The Steelers resigned Robert Golden prior to the start of free agency, and his play in 2015 shows that Golden has the skills to be a serviceable starter.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but the Steelers are looking for Sean Davis to be far more than serviceable at this crucial position in the secondary.

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4 Steelers 2016 Draft Lessons – What Steelers Nation Learned about Colbert & Tomlin

The NFL Draft reveals a lot about its teams. Pre-Noll era Steelers coaches Walter Keisling and Buddy Parker had no use for rookies and routinely traded away draft picks, and the franchise suffered for it. In Washington, George Allen and then later Bobby Bethard traded away draft picks, and bought home hardware.

  • And what can the Steelers 2016 Draft Class teach us about the franchise?

The ultimate lesson will be known in seasons to come, but for now, here are 4 Lessons from the Steelers 2016 Draft.

1. Tomlin and Colbert Draft in Clusters

When the Steelers needed to rebuild their offensive line, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin used 4 first and second round picks on offensive line in the 2010, 2011, and 2012. Similarly, as Dan Sanger of The Steelers Wire has pointed out, Colbert used three first round picks from 2013 to 2015 to draft linebackers.

You could argue that the Tomlin-Colbert era began that way with back-to-back picks of Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley.

  • Now Colbert and Tomlin have used 3 premium picks on defensive backs in two drafts.

Will it work? Well, no one can deny the Steelers offensive line is a strength in 2016 whereas it was a weakness before the rebuilding process started in 2010. As far as the linebackers are concerned, Jarvis Jones still has a lot to prove, but Ryan Shazier is the real deal, and Bud Dupree looked good for a rookie.

  • At this point, Senquez Golson, Artie Burns and Sean Davis are defined solely by their potential.

Time will tell if these rookies can give the Steelers defense the octane boost the franchise needs to let Ben Roethlisberger lead them to the mountain top before he succumbs to Father Time.

The lesson here is that when Tomlin and Colbert set out to rebuild a spot on the depth chart, they cluster their premium picks in ways that Colbert and Bill Cowher never did.

2. Kevin Colbert is Cocksure about His Decisions

When asked about free agent defections in the 2013 off season, Colbert retored by asking how many essential guys can you lose from an 8-8 team. The Steelers 2016 off season has seen Pittsburgh let two experience cornerbacks in Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin defect in free agency without much of a fight.

  • Yet, before the draft, Kevin Colbert boldly declared that the 2016 Steelers would field a capable secondary.

Without making an explicit reference to his 2013 argument, is as much saying that the Steelers are practicing addition by subtraction with their 30th ranked pass defense.

On paper, this logic works perfectly, but only if you have guys who can step up and do a better job. Steel Curtain Rising is already on record questioning whether the Steelers are putting too much faith in Senquez Golson. The same can be said for planning to start draft picks.

If nothing else, however, the Steelers 2016 Draft Class proves once again that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin do not make personnel decisions out of fear.

3. Steelers Draft for Need or Value When it Suits Them

As far back as 2011, fans were clamoring for the Steelers to draft a cornerback. Yet David DeCastro fell to the Steelers, so they took him. Good move. In 2014, needs dictated the Steelers would draft a corerback in the first or second round. Yet, when Ryan Shazier was available, the Steelers drafted him immediately. You can ask Jeremy Hill if Colbert and Tomlin got that one right.

The situation was the same in 2015, when Bud Dupree, whom many had rated as a top ten talent, fell. The Steelers took him…. The early returns are good.

Here in 2016, corners and safeties went off the board in droves in the first round. Yet the Steelers grabbed Artie Burns. They then drafted Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave, filling their top three needs.

  • Yet after that, the Steelers went for value.

Word is the Steelers wanted to trade into the 5th round for a running back. They couldn’t, but when their time came to draft, they didn’t look to a running back, but stuck to their board and picked outside linebacker Travis Feeney.

4. The Bengals REALLY Don’t Like the Steelers

Unlike the Steelers, the Cincinnati Bengals have invested several first round picks in cornerbacks in the Andy Dalton era alone. Yet, when the time can to draft, they picked William Jackson III, whom it was widely known the Steelers wanted to get.

  • Everyone’s been talking about that move, but there’s another that others have missed.

The Steelers also coveted Andrew Billings. Many expected them to pick him after Jackson was taken. The Steelers made other moves, and drafted Hargrave leaving Billings on the board. However, by the 4th round the Steelers were looking at value and its not inconceivable that Billings was the BPA for them.

  • The Bengals drafted him before the Steelers got a chance.

Perhaps the Steelers would have drafted Jerald Hawkins with their fourth round pick anyway, but Cincinnati didn’t give them a chance to make that choice? Coincidence? I’d bet you an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty its not.

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Steelers Release Cortez Allen

The experiment that was Cortez Allen as a starting cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers has officially come to an end.

As reported by various outlets–including the team’s official website–Allen, 27, was released on Friday after five seasons. According to UPI.com, Allen, who was scheduled to make $4.4 million in 2016, was let go after refusing to take a pay-cut.

Cortez Allen was the team’s fourth round pick out of The Citadel in the 2011 NFL Draft, and after showing a lot of promise near the end of the 2012 season–including two interceptions and a fumble recovery–and emerging as a starter in 2013, the front-office decided to reward him with a five-year contract extension prior to the 2014 season.

After watching Keenan Lewis, a third round pick in 2009, develop into perhaps the team’s best cornerback in 2012 and then leave via free-agency that offseason, Pittsburgh didn’t want to make the same mistake with Allen. Unfortunately, injuries and ineffective play stymied Allen’s 2014 season, and by the time the Steelers were marching towards the playoffs and their first AFC North crown in four years,  he had been surpassed on the cornerback depth chart by journeymen Antwon Blake and Brice McCain and was pretty much a non-factor.

  • The 2015 season would not prove to be a resurgence for Allen, as injuries reduced his season to just one game.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin pointedly refused to give Allen a vote of confidence in his season-ending press conference following the loss to the Broncos in the divisional round. And after months to think things over, Tomlin again hinted that Allen’s time with the team had pretty much come to an end when he addressed the media in March while in Boca Raton, Florida, for the annual owners’ meetings.

With Allen’s release following the free-agent departures of Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin, at the very least the Steelers will have to address their cornerback depth in the 2016 NFL Draft, which kicks off on April 28.

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Steelers Nation Speaks: Steelers Free Agency 2016 Poll Results Complete

In the end, Brandon Boykin got a lot of love from Steelers Nation. Or at least this corner of it. As the Steelers 2016 pre-draft visits have begun, Steel Curtain Rising has taken down its Steelers free agency 2016 poll. While it is possible, perhaps even probable the Steelers will make move free agent moves before convening training camp in Latrobe at St. Vincents, the organization’s focus has clearly shift to the draft.

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Steelers Nation voted on Steelers 2016 Free Agents

  • But over the last 45 days or so, Steelers Nation has had a chance to vote on what they think Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin should be doing.

Brandon Boykin was the third most popular Steelers free agent, William Gay was first with 51 votes and Ramon Foster was second with 46, followed by Boykin’s 41. The Steelers resigned William Gay and Ramon Foster, but let prance to the Carolina Panthers. Darrius Heyward-Bey came in fourth, whom the Steelers also resigned.

No one outside of that group got more than 30 votes. Almost as many people wanted to see Kelvin Beachum protecting Ben Roethlisberger (25), as want to see Bruce Gradkowski back him up (24). No one else got more than 20 votes.

  • The next highest vote getter is somewhat of a surprise: Doug Legursky who got 19 votes.

Steel Curtain Rising sung Legursky’s praises when he first reached free agency in 2013 and warned the losing Legursky could carry consequences (it did) and scolded the Pittsburgh media for not even bothering to cover it when he signed with the Buffalo Bills. Nonetheless, this site did not call for Legursky’s return to Pittsburgh, but a good chunk of our readers have.

Both remain unsigned and at this point will likely stay that way until after the draft. The Steelers may still bring back Will Johnson, but word is Will Allen will not return. Steelers long snapper Greg Warren also got 18 votes, although the Steelers had already resigned Warren before the voting began.

Below Warren and the Wills, only Antwon Blake and Terence Garvin found double digit support in Steelers Nation, with Michael Vick, Byron Stingily, Clifton GeathersCam Thomas, Jordan Todman and David Nelson (who?) all polling in single digits.

Of the group above, only Jordan Todman has signed elsewhere, and the Steelers are not likely to resign any of those players. Steel Curtain Rising thanks everyone who voted in our poll, and encourages you to vote in our Steelers 2016 Draft Needs Poll.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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Panthers Sign Brandon Boykin, Steelers Cornerback Depth Now “Officially” Thin

No one in Steelers Nation knows if Steelers secondary will improve or backslide in 2016, but one fact is certain: It will look far different. The face of the Steelers defensive backfield continues to change as the Carolina Panthers sign Brandony Boykin, whom the Steelers acquired via trade during training camp.

Brandon Boykin was the subject of one of the Steelers strangest stories in 2015.

The Steelers gave up a conditional 5th round pick to get Boykin and when he arrived at St. Vincents, many commentators thought he might be push for the starting job. Instead, Boykin remained on the bench, unable to move past Antwon Blake and Ross Cockrell.

Boykin did begin splitting time with Antwon Blake late in the Steelers 2015 season, and generally did well. The reasons for his failure to play were never publicly discussed, but indications are that he had difficulty picking up Keith Butler’s defense.

Regardless, Brandon Boykin generally did play well for the Steelers when his number was called, having intercepted a ball in the Steelers rout over the Colts, and registering a sack in the team’s late season loss to Baltimore. Boykin didn’t make any “splash plays” in the playoffs, but did record six tackles.

Steelers Cornerback Depth Decidedly Thin

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin took the Pittsburgh Steelers into free agency with a plan, and that plan was clearly not to overpay anyone beyond what they determined was their worth. Former starting cornerback Antwon Blake is now a Tennessee Titan and Boykin is now a Carolina Panther.

As of now, the Steelers prospective 2016 depth chart at cornerback would have William Gay and Ross Cockrell as starters, with Senquez Golson as the number one backup. Doran Grant could also be in the mix, although the team is rumored to be considering moving him to safety.

Cortez Allen remains with the team, although Mike Tomlin has publically stated that he has doubts about Allen’s ability to contribute and does not even know his health status.

  • While Kevin Colbert vote of non-confidence in Allen was not as strong as Tomlin’s, Allen will have to prove he deserves a roster spot in training camp.

In contrast, at the NFL owners meeting Mike Tomlin spoke glowingly of Senquez Golson and the NFL Owners meetings, the Steelers 2015 2nd round pick whose season was lost to injury, and Steel Curtain Rising will expanding on this further. Stay tuned Steelers Nation.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

 

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Antwon Blake Agrees to Deal with Titans

You can add cornerback Antwon Blake to the growing list of Steelers defensive free-agents who won’t be around in 2016.

  • As per their official team website, the Titans have reached an agreement on a one-year deal with Blake, who started 16 games in Pittsburgh a year ago.

Blake, an undrafted free-agent out of UTEP in 2012, played one year with the Jaguars, before winding up in Pittsburgh for the 2013 season. Blake was simply on the peripheral of things until about midway through the 2014 campaign, when he began to emerge as a key component in the Steelers’ struggling secondary.

  • Blake teamed up with Brice McCain to shore up the pass-defense, after it was apparent that Cortez Allen, he of the lucrative new offseason contract, simply wasn’t up to the task.

By the end of the 2014 season, Allen was benched, and Blake was a major contributor, recording six passes defensed and an interception. However, Blake’s biggest contribution came in Week 17, when he both forced and recovered a fumble of Bengals receiver A.J. Green late in the fourth quarter that preserved a 20-17 lead and paved the way for the Steelers’ first AFC North title in four seasons.

A season ago, Blake was entrusted as a starting corner, and despite recording 11 passes defensed, along with a 70-yard pick-six against the Chargers in Week 5, he was mostly the subject for fan scorn and ridicule, as Pittsburgh’s defense finished 30th against the pass.

Blake may not have been the answer in the secondary, but the question of who is still remains.

As of right now, the Steelers have veteran William Gay and youngster Ross Cockrell as corners, to go along with veteran Mike Mitchell and unproven youngster Robert Golden at the safety spots.

You have to assume that the experiment with Allen is all but over after five years and one contract extension. As for Shamarko Thomas, the safety Pittsburgh traded a third round pick to move up in the fourth round of  the 2013 NFL Draft to select, he impressed so little in 2015 (the year he was supposed to succeed the legendary Troy Polamalu), he barely got on the field.

Senquez Golson and Doran Grant, two members of the 2015 draft class, may provide some answers in the secondary. Also, veteran safety Will Allen is still unsigned, as is corner Brandon Boykin, who spent last season with the Steelers. If one or both of those players can be added back to the secondary mix for 2016, you may feel better about things.

  • As of right now, however, there are far too many unknowns in the Steelers’ defensive backfield to feel confident about an improved pass-defense for the 2016 season.

Along with Blake and Spence, the Steelers’ defense has also lost nose tackle Steve McLendon and linebacker Terrence Garvin to free-agency so far this offseason.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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