4 Steelers 2017 OTAs Story Lines to Avoid (But That You Probably Can’t Resist)

Today marks the mid-point of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 OTA’s or “Oragniazed Team Activities” for those of you who insist on precision. That means that there’s only four more left after today. But fear not, there’s also minicamp.

  • Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin will be the first person to caution against drawing conclusions from “football in shorts.”

And he’s right. Nonetheless, there are times when OTA’s and/or Minicamp have provided insight into the direction of the Steelers. But reading last Tuesday morning’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s headline “7 Steelers Storylines as OTA’s Begin” inspired me to write the “4 Steelers 2017 OTA Storylines to Avoid” article….

…And then I started reading coverage from the first week of Steelers OTA’s, took my Black and Gold blood pressure, and added the “Probably Can’t Resist” part. You’ll see why.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 2017 OTAs

Will 2017 mark Ben Roethlisberger’s final Steelers OTAs? Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Pittsburgh Tribune Review

1. The Roethlisberger Retirement Story

This is probably the most unavoidable of the ones to avoid. Ben Roethlisberger hadn’t talked to the press since dropping the R-word following the Steelers AFC Championship loss. So you knew this was coming. And let’s be honest, Jerry Micco & company would woefully neglectful NOT publishing a story on it.

  • As it turns out, Ben Roethlisberger proclaimed and demonstrated his 110% commitment to 2017 and refused to go further.

So in other words, Ben Rothlisberger has confirmed that his playing days are now on a year-to-year basis. We knew that already. So really, there’s no story there….

…And with that said, if seeing Ben Roethlisberger proclaim…

I am here on Day One. You saw me out there taking every rep I am supposed to take, and then some. I actually took some of the rookies’ today. I am 110 percent committed, like I said I was I love this city. I love these guys. I love being out here. Football is a passion of mine. It’s what I do and it’s what I love to do.

…Doesn’t make you wish opening days was this Sunday, then you’re not a real Steelers fan.

2. The Martavis Bryant Rejuvenation

If Ben Roethlisberger gauging the correct time to pull the plug on his career, Martavis Bryant is trying to keep his on life support.

Martavis Bryant returned to the South Side for the first time since his latest substance abuse suspension and proclaimed himself to be a new man. He’s in the best shape of his life, and apparently running a 40 that’s faster than when he was in college. Then Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell was kind enough to post this video:

Again, admit it: If the sight of Martavis Bryant lining up along Antonio Brown doesn’t make you wonder “What If” when you remember the AFC Championship game, then it’s time to turn in your season tickets.

  • But while that feel good story is legit, some buzz kill certainly remains in order.

It was just one year ago today that Le’Veon Bell was denying Mark Madden’s report that he’d failed multiple drug tests. With that direct denial in hand, the Steelers press corps moved on to other items, and the story died, until training camp arrived and Steelers Nation learned that Le’Veon Bell WAS in fact facing a suspension.

Martavis Bryant is saying all the right things and by all accounts doing the right things, but we’ve seen this movie before.

3. Position Battles at Tight End and Cornerback

This one comes with no need for qualification. Had Ladarius Green not been cut, then it’s possible that OTA’s would have given Steelers Nation the first sight that Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Scott Orndoff from Pitt was going to give David Johnson or Xavier Grimble a run for his money (and his roster spot.)

  • Possible, mind you, but not likely.

But as it stands, Jesse James is the Steelers number 1 tight end, with David Johnson and Xavier Grimble fighting for the number 2 spot. As the Steelers don’t typically keep four tight ends, Scott Orndoff might still need to beat one of those two men to get a spot. But absent Ladarius Green, Orndoff getting reps won’t tell us much.

  • Ditto the defensive backfield.

About the only thing we might learn is whether Jordan Dangerfield will continue to function in that hybrid linebacker/safety slot that he played in at times at the end of 2016. But don’t expect any realistic information to come out of OTA’s as to whether Coty Sensabaugh, Senquez Golson or 3rd round draft pick Cam Sutton will push William Gay to Safety or to the bench.

With that said, news that Senquez Golson is running well will be most welcome.

4. News That So-and-So Rookie Is As Good as Advertised…

If a team’s first round draft pick is kind of like a new car, then OTA’s represent the first time you get to take it around the block. Let’s admit it fun. The car retains all of its sex appeal and new car sent never smelled better.
No one ever discovered they’d bought a lemon on their first spin around the bock. Neither did they concluded that they’d made the best purchase of their life.

No Pittsburgh Steeler ever earned rookie of the year honors during OTA’s let alone the Pro Bowl. But they have left false impressions. Ryan Shazier immediately leap frogged Vince Williams, Sean Spence and Terence Garvin and worked alongside the starters during 2014 OTA’s.

  • Mike Tomlin loathes anointing rookies, so this represented a bold move.

And while this site was an remains a Ryan Shazier fan, injuries ruined much of his rookie year, and he had to fight his way back onto the starting roster. Jonathan Dwyer provides an even better example. If memory serves, Jonathan Dwyer was the toast of 2010’s OTA’s. Unfortunately, the PG Plus stories that Ray Fitapaldo wrote about him aren’t accessible via Google search.

  • We did unearth an article talking about how Jonathan Dwyer’s cousin James Farrior was helping him understand the work ethic necessary to transition to the NFL.

That make this all the more ironic, because while Dwyer did look good in OTA’s, he showed up at St. Vincents overweight and out of shape, and only got a roster spot thanks to a late preseason surge plus an injury to Frank “The Tank” Summers.

So with that in mind I could do nothing except roll my eyes when I saw Behind the Steel Curtain editor Jeff Hartman’s headline, “Steelers Top Draft Pick TJ Watt Flashes Ridiculous Ball Skills at OTAs.” I mean, come one, how “ridiculous” can the ball skills of any rookie, even a future Hall of Famer like Troy Polamalu, show at OTAs. Right?

Then I saw the video:

In case you’re just joining use, the Steelers drafted T.J. Watt in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft to replace James Harrison, not Heath Miller or Ladarius Green. And this wasn’t a one-play wonder:

OK. Let’s remember that this is coming during OTA’s in a situation where Watt knows not only knows the ball is being thrown, its being thrown to him without anyone contesting the catch.

But how can you not be impressed by back-to-back one-handed interceptions. For the record, Jim Wexell posted a longer video of this same session that also showed Bud Dupree making some nice catches himself.

It might be “Only OTA’s” but I guess it’s still OK to enjoy what you see.

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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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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 @ 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 @ Safety: Moderate-Low

Safety is yet another area on the Steelers depth chart where Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have put extended efforts towards renewing. For eight years, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark held down the Steelers two starting safety roles giving Pittsburgh one of the NFL’s best tandems.

The Steelers thought they had added an important piece of the puzzle when they traded up to draft Shamarko Thomas in the 2013 NFL Draft, but he did not work out as planned.

However, the puzzle unquestionably began coming together for the Steelers in 2016 and the only question at this point is whether the Steelers will seek to add more pieces in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Sean Davis, Mike Mitchell, Tyler Boyd, Steelers 2017 Draft Needs safety

Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell team to throttle Tyler Boyd in Sept 2016. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today

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

To give you an idea of how much turnover this unit has seen, Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell is one of the old hands, and he only arrived in 2014. The Steelers of course made a rare, day one “splash” free agency signing when they signed Mitchell on the first day of free agency in 2014.

A groin injury, and a lack of familiarity with Polamalu’s free-wheeling style, limited Mike Mitchell’s effectiveness in 2014, but he came back with a vengeance in 2015, coming down with 3 clutch 4th quarter interceptions while laying in the wood with welcome regularity.

Starting opposite Mike Mitchell is 2016’s 2nd round pick Sean Davis, who came to Pittsburgh from the University of Maryland. On September 12th, playing just a few miles from Byrd Stadium, Sean Davis became the first rookie defensive back to start a season opener since fellow Terrapin Chad Scott had done so in the 1997 opening day thumping the suffered at Three Rivers Stadium by the Steelers at the hands of the Cowboys.

  • By mid-season Sean Davis was making the kind of plays that made you wonder why he wasn’t a 1st round pick.

He helped stuff out a Giants comeback with his first NFL interception, showed off his versatility by sacking Tyrod Taylor in the win over the Bills, Tyrod Taylor, played a key role in the goal line stand against the Colts on Thanksgiving, and broke up two passes against the Ravens on Christmas night. And, in the AFC Divisional playoff game, Sean Davis broke up Kansas City’s 2 point conversion attempt.

Not a bad resume, for a rookie.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Safety Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

On paper, Robert Golden would appear to be the “Next man up” on the Steelers depth chart at safety, as he has the most experience and split time with Sean Davis early in 2016. But by the end of the season, Jordan Dangerfield and found his way into various sub-packages and is even listed by the Steelers as having started 2 games.

Depending on how things play out, a third name could find himself on the Steelers depth chart at safety. William Gay is losing a step at cornerback, but rumor has it the team may consider a move to safety, which would suit his ball hawking abilities.

The Steelers also have Jacob Hagen under contract at safety.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Safety

It took time, it took a little trial and error, and it took a little bit of patience, but the Steelers have renewed their depth chart at safety almost completely Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu played their final game together in 2013.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs safety

The plan to turn things over to Shamarko Thomas never came to fruition and the Steelers certainly relied longer than they had planned to, but that page is now turned.

Like any NFL team, the Pittsburgh Steelers need as many good safeties as they can find, but right now the Steelers have two quality starters and two serviceable backups. If William Gay does move to safety, he’ll provide an immediate talent boost to the lower part of the depth chart.

But taking all of the variables into account, the Steelers 2017 draft need at safety must be considered Moderate-Low.

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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.

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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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.

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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The Pro’s & Con’s of Steelers Original Round Tender to Restricted Free Agent Ross Cockrell

Cornerback has been a liability for the Pittsburgh Steelers since at least 2013 and perhaps longer. While some of the criticism of Kevin Colbert’s attempt to address cornerback on the cheap (think Antwon Blake & DeMarcus Van Dyke) is legitimate, let’s also remember that the Steelers won Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII by starting two corners drafted in 4th round (Ike Taylor & Deshea Townsend).

But all of Kevin Colbert’s cornerback bargain hunting exhibitions have come up empty, and Steelers restricted free agent cornerback Ross Cockrell provides the perfect example.

The Steelers have already made an original round restricted free agent tender to Ross Cockrell, and here we review the merits of their decision.

Ross Cockrell, Steelers vs Raiders, Ross Cockrell interception, Mike Mitchell, William Gay

Ross Cockrell’s Red Zone interception against the Raiders in 2015. Photo Credit: USA Today’s SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of Ross Cockrell’s Steelers Career

After the 2015 pre-season’s first cut down day, the Steelers made a curious move – they claimed cornerback Ross Cockrell off of waivers from the Buffalo Bills. The Steelers had already traded for Brandon Boykin and, at least publicly, were still committed to Cortez Allen.

In week four when Ross Cockrell picked off a Joe Flacco pass in the Steelers Monday Night loss to the Ravens the move made more sense. At mid season, when he made a touchdown saving interception in the end zone against the Raiders, it make even more sense. Cockrell appeared in 15 games for the Steelers and started in 7 games by the Steelers count.

Perhap’s Cockrell’s biggest moment for the Steelers came in the playoff win over the Bengals, as Cockrell recovered Jeremy Hill’s fumble that Ryan Shazier had forced, opening the door to the Steelers come from behind win.

  • The Steelers saw enough of Ross Cockrell in 2015 to pencil him in as their 2016 starter.

Ross Cockrell started all sixteen games for the Steelers in 2016, and while he didn’t record any interceptions, he had 14 defensed passes. Fans didn’t hear Ross Cockrell’s name a lot during 2016, and for a cornerback that is often a good sign.

The Case for the Steelers Tendering Ross Cockrell

In 31 regular season games and 5 playoff games Ross Cockrell has proven himself to be a quality NFL cornerback. Moreover, he’s grown from someone the Steelers picked up off of the wavier wire into a starter on a defense that went all the way to the AFC Championship (although they did struggle there – so did the offense.)

When addressing the Steelers needs at cornerback heading into the 2017 NFL Draft, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell offered this:

Here’s another thing: Ross Cockrell is a treasure. He works so hard that no one will dismiss his chances. Therefore, no ones [sic] going to leak that they’re dissatisfied with their outside guys. And really, with how hard Cockrell works and how smart he is, there’s no certainty a high draft pick will beat him out. But I believe that with such a deep crop the value will be too good to pass up.

That sounds like Ross Cockrell has a lot of “upside.” Viewed from that perspective, one can only wonder if the Steelers original round tender, which would bring Pittsburgh a 4th round pick should another team sign Cockrell, is too low.

The Case Against the Steelers Tendering Ross Cockrell

The Pittsburgh Steelers need quality cornerbacks. Rookie Artie Burns, whom the Steelers took in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, showed a lot of promise in his first year. But William Gay showed signs he might be losing a step.

While Ross Cockrell was an improvement over Antwon Blake, that’s kind of like saying the Steelers improved at quarterback in 1988 after trading Mark Malone and starting Bubby Brister. The restricted free agent tender the Steelers offered Ross Cockrell is just under 2 million dollars per year.

  • Is Ross Cockrell really worth that much money?

Ben Roethlisberger’s Super Bowl window is shrinking, perhaps faster than thought even a year ago. The Steelers need proven production out of their cornerback position, not uncertain potential. Offering Ross Cockrell a restricted free agent tender is tantamount to trying to apply a BandAid to a wound that needs stitches.

Curtain’s Call on Ross Cockrell and the Steelers

Deciding on whether to tender or not to tender a restricted free agent can be tricky business for a team. While a tender does allow a team to hedge its bets, it also commits them to a certain dollar value (although RFA tenders are not guaranteed).

  • Ross Cockrell has shown enough in during his time in Pittsburgh that the rest of the NFL knows he can play cornerback.

He’s not a player like Stevenson Sylvester, whom the Steelers can opt not to tender and expect to get back in August or September should they decide they need him after all. Offering a right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard probably wouldn’t deter another team from making an offer to Ross Cockrell.

By giving Ross Cockrell an original round tender, the Steelers will force any team to sacrifice a 4th round draft pick to take him away, and Pittsburgh retains the right to match the offer. The Steelers have had teams make runs at their restricted free agents before, once with Jerrol Williams in 1993 and again in 2013 with Emmanuel Sanders.

The key to both situations is in both situations, the Steelers refused to panic. Given how great of a commodity cornerbacks are and how thin the Steelers are at the position, it’s possible that an original round tender for Ross Cockrell doesn’t carry a high enough cost to deter opposing General Managers.

But the Steelers conserve their options and will ultimately control what happens. That’s the right move. Ross Cockrell is the type of player who can help you win a Super Bowl, and the Steelers have ensured that they’ll be able to keep in in Pittsburgh.

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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Steelers Free Agent Focus: Shamarko Thomas – 4 Years Later Thomas Fails to Disprove Doubters

The Pittsburgh Steelers do not like to trade future draft picks. The franchise went down that road too many times in the Pre-Noll era and paid the price repeatedly. Nonetheless Noll did it in the summer of 1973 when he traded the Steelers 1974 3rd round pick to the Raiders to acquire Glen Ray Hines.

Because of that trade, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley and Bill Nunn were forced to sit on their hands after drafting Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert during the Steelers 1974 Draft in hopes that no one took John Stallworth in the 3rd round.

Neither did Tom Donahoe or Bill Cowher, and neither did Kevin Colbert until the 2013 NFL Draft when the Steelers traded their 2014 third round pick to get the Cleveland Browns 2013 4th round pick to grab Shamarko Thomas in the 4th round, and four years later Shamarko Thomas enters free agency have failed to disprove the doubters.

Shamarko Thomas, Markus Wheaton, Steelers 2013 training camp, Shamarko Thomas free agent, Shamarko Thomas rookie

Shamarko Thomas & Markus Wheaton as rookies in 2013 at Latrobe. Photo Credit: Ryan Wilson, CBSSports.com

Capsule Profile of Shamarkoy Thomas’ Steelers Career

Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake explained Pittsburgh’s break from character by arguing that if Shamarko Thomas, who stands at 5’10”, were two inches taller, he’d have been a first round pick.

  • In a word, Pittsburgh as hot on Shamarko Thomas.

The Steelers immediately worked Shamarko Thomas into the defense, a rarity for a rookie in Dick LeBeau’s system. The Steelers goal was to groom Shamarko Thomas as Troy Polamalu’s successor, and the first step in that process was to get Shamarko on the field covering slot receivers as a nickel back.

Most of those came at the beginning of the season, before he got injured forcing the Steelers to bring back Will Allen. While Allen remained “The next man up” when Shamarko Thomas got healthy, Thomas still got some work with the defense, although that ended after the Steelers 2013 debacle against the Patriots.

Shamarko Thomas, Shamarko Thomas workout

Shamarko Thomas working out during the 2014 off season

The Steelers 2014 OTA’s brought the first sign that the Steelers might be having second thoughts about Shamarko’s ability to succeed Troy Polamalu. Will Allen was the number 2 safety on the depth chart, and Shamarko Thomas suffered an injury early in the season. When he returned, his action came exclusively on special teams.

  • Mike Tomlin explained away the move by suggesting that Thomas was simply struggling to board a “Moving Train” as would any player would.

Rookie defensive coordinator Keith Butler gave Shamarko Thomas his first extended shot at earning the starting strong safety job during the summer of 2015. The Steelers started Shamarko Thomas throughout preseason, but Thomas continued to make mistake after mistake. Shortly before the season opener, the Steelers benched Shamarko Thomas in favor of Will Allen.

For the record, Shamarko Thomas played 20 snaps with the Steelers defense in 2015 and 5 snaps in 2016…

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Shamarko Thomas

In 2016, whenever the Steelers needed help at safety, the Steelers looked to Jordan Dangerfield, signaling the definitive end to the Shamarko Thomas experiment.

  • But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a case for the Steelers resigning Shamarko Thomas.

If Shamarko Thomas has been a brutal disappointment at safety, he’s been a quality often times standout special teams player. Yes, he’s made mistakes, but he’s arguably been the Steelers best gunner for the past several years.

Clearly, if Shamarko Thomas has a future in the NFL it is on special teams. Clearly on one will pay him much more the than the veteran minimum, if even that. If Shamarko Thomas is bound to be racing downfield to stop kick and punt returners, doesn’t it make sense for him to be doing it in Pittsburgh?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Shamarko Thomas

When things don’t pan out with a high-profile draft pick (think Jarvis Jones), often times it is in the best interests of both parties to go their separate ways. Yes, Shamarko Thomas is a quality special teams player and, to be brutally frank, Danny Smith’s special teams don’t have the luxury of cavalierly showing good players to the door.

Fair enough. But the truth is even if the Steelers bring Shamarko Thomas back on a veteran minimum salary to play special teams, that means that he’ll be taking a roster spot that could be occupied by another young player who can both do Shamarko’s job on special teams, and potentially contribute something, either now or in a future season, to the offense or defense.

  • Shamarko Thomas isn’t going to contribute anything to the Steelers defense.

That’s simply the reality. As early as 2015 people were already labeling the 2013 NFL Draft as one of the worst in history. If that’s true, then the Steelers came out of that draft with Le’Veon Bell, Landry Jones, Markus Wheaton and Vince Williams, giving them a pretty successful haul.

But the Steelers missed on Jarvis Jones and missed on Shamarko Thomas, and it is time for them to move on from both mistakes.

Curtain’s Call on Shamarko Thomas and the Steelers

The Shamarko Thomas situation promises to be one of the more interesting, albeit low-profile decisions the Steelers make during the 2017 off season. Reading the tea leaves from reporters such as Dale Lolley and Jim Wexell, there are some signs that the Steelers have some interest in bring Thomas back.

  • But he won’t be a priority, which means he’ll get a chance to test the market.

If the Steelers can bring him back at or near the veteran minimum, he’d be a good addition to their special teams. If someone wants to offer him more than that, then Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin will wisely thank him for his service and send him on his way.

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