With their first pick in the 7th round of the 2021 NFL Draft the Steelers bolstered their secondary by drafting cornerback/safety Tre Norwood, who played his college ball at Oklahoma.
The NFL’s draft site labeled Tre Norwood as a cornerback the Steelers announced him as a safety, but Mike Tomlin called him a “Swiss Army Knife/utility back/safety.”
The Sooners listed him as a “defensive back.”
Early in his career he played cornerback but gravitated to safety later in his career. As far as it concerns the Steelers, it really doesn’t matter – Pittsburgh is desperate for backups at both cornerback and safety.
Steelers 7th round pick Tre Norwood. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review
Tre Norwood Video Highlights
The 6 foot 192 pounder Norwood caught the attention of scouts thanks to his ball skills, as he intercepted 5 passes during the 2020 season, tying for 3rd national and leading the Big 12. Here’s a look at his highlight tape:
Looks good. He won’t find NFL quarterbacks throwing passes that are that easy to pick off, but he does know how to catch a ball.
That latter of has proven nothing in 2 years in the NFL and Antoine Brooks is untested. But at the end of the day, Tre Norwood, the Swiss Army Knife, is a 7th round pick. 7th round picks can make a difference as rookies – just look at Kelvin Beachum in 2012. And in 1992 8th round pick Darren Perry won the starting job.
But the best case scenario for Tre Norwood is for him to contribute on special teams.
Hopefully, they’ll be no demand for his services in 2021 beyond that. Welcome to Steelers Nation Tre Norwood.
The 2021 NFL Draft is here. The Pittsburgh Steelers have 8 picks to fill enough holes with just enough talent to give themselves an shot at making what will, perhaps, be one final Super Bowl run with Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers have also done some free agent bargain bin hunting, to give themselves depth at offensive line, cornerback, tackle, defensive line and a few other spots. Make no mistake about it:
The Steelers roster is weaker than the one that got beaten badly the Browns in the playoffs.
The Steelers have real needs they must fill in the 2021 NFL Draft. So what are those needs?
Steelers Needs Heading into the 2021 NFL Draft
Over the last few weeks, with the help of Tony Defeo, we’ve reviewed each part of the Steelers depth chat, classifying Pittsburgh’s need using the following scale.
The Steelers needs tier pretty quickly into three categories: Serious needs, almost serious needs, and “Nice to Haves.”
The Steelers serious needs come at running back, tackle, center, and tight end. Note, Tony Defeo classified tight end as “High” but for the Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix, I’m classifying that is “High-Moderate.”
What that means in plain English is that the Steelers could draft tonight or tomorrow night who could win the starting job in training camp.
Below that we have “almost serious needs” where we place Cornerback as High-Moderate, Inside Linebacker as Moderate-High, Outside linebacker as Moderate (although that could easily go Moderate High). Those are followed by Safety, Defensive line an guard which are both “Moderate.”
In simple terms, its is less likely that the Steelers could draft a starter here, but possible.
And even if that player isn’t a starter, he could end up providing critical depth at the position. Guard might be the outliner there, particularly depending on what happens at center.
Finally, you have our “Nice to Haves” which are wide receiver and quarterback.
With Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins AND Joshua Dobbs under contract, the Steelers really don’t have room for a quarterback, unless a 1983 type situation unfolds and it won’t. Likewise, with JuJu back, and Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson still having plenty of “upside” using a premium pick on a wide out is a luxury the Steelers don’t have in 2021.
The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix
So how do you determine the Steelers pecking order in terms of needs? Well, for that we give you the Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix.
Running back gets the nod over offensive tackle because the Steelers have two starters, albeit unproven ones, at tackle, whereas they do not have a legitimate number 1 NFL running back. Tackle gets preference over center because you need field two tackles an only one center. Center gets the nod over tight end because Eric Ebron is a better tight end than either B.J. Finney or J.C. Hassenauer is a center.
And there’s a chance that Kevin Radar can be a legit number 1 NFL tight end, at least in terms of blocking.
Tight end beats cornerback because the Steelers have two starter-capable players there, and cornerback trumps inside linebacker because someone could come in and beat out either Robert Spillane or Vince Williams.
But the Steelers have no one behind them, so outside linebacker trumps safety, where the Steelers do have some younger depth. But the depth at safety is even more untested than it is at defensive line so that gets the next nod. Guard comes in next because the Steelers should be OK there, but it is clearly a higher need that wide receiver or quarterback.
As always we offer our caveat, the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix does not suggest that Steelers should reach to fill needs.
But the needs matrix is intended to act as a sort of tie breaker for when and if the Steelers turn comes to pick and two men have the same draft grade (not that Mike Tomlin or Kevin Colbert will ever read this – nor should they.)
Finally, while more hype and hoopla surrounds the draft than their needs to be, but let’s keep in mind Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr.’s words, “Everyone’s a winner on draft day.” While the The Chief’s words were more of a compliant than an aspiration, the truth is that the NFL draft is the day a dream comes true for 250 or so young men.
Let’s give them there day, hope they enjoy it and, in turn, let their enthusiasm fuel our own hopes for the Steelers 2021 season and beyond.
Pittsburgh Steelers reserve free agent safety Sean Davis has signed with the Indianapolis Colts. Davis’ defection unites him with fellow University of Maryland alumni Frank Reich, and deals the Steelers an unsurprising, if slightly disappointing blow.
The move also leads us to a rather ironic, bilingual play on words.
Sean Davis can’t stop Ezekiel Elliot. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via The Steelers Wire.
There was nothing hypothetical about his real value to the Steelers: Depth.
And that’s where the bilingual play on words comes in.
The Spanish equivalents for American football terms represent a strange breed. Some, such as “Esquinero” for cornerback are quite literal. Others, like “Ala cerrada” for tight end are less obvious. “Ala” is wing in Spanish and “cerrada” means closed. Then there’s quarterback, which is termed “Mariscal de Campo” in Spanish.
The literal translation of Mariscal de campo” is Field Marshal.
There’s one case where you could argue that Spanish term expresses the concept behind the role of quarterback more precisely than the English one.
So at this point you’re saying: “Ok, that’s interesting. But what the hell does it have to do with Sean Davis?”
Well, Sean Davis plays safety. The Spanish term for an American football safety is “Profundo.” And the literal meaning for “Profundo” is depth. And that’s where the irony comes in. Sean Davis’ free agent defection to the Colts tells the Steelers story thus far this off season: Free agency is ravaging this team’s depth.
While the franchise has question marks on the offensive line, tight end and running back, on paper the team is setting itself up to field a quality starting lineup. But outside of quarterback, wide receiver, arguably defensive line, and perhaps running back, the Steelers have no depth. None.
On the first day of “legal tampering” the Steelers opened free agency by signing Cam Sutton. Cam Sutton was their most important “signable” free agent. On day two Pittsburgh addressed the man who was arguably their 2nd most important “signable” priority by resigning offensive guard Zach Banner to a two year contract.
All of the news was neither good, nor entirely expected.
Tyson Alualu got a 2 year contract to return to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team that had drafted him in 2010. As mentioned in Alualu’s free agent profile, Alualu delivered excellent “bang for the salary cap buck” for Pittsburgh and was the unsung hero on the Ste
The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com
elers defensive line in 2020. Moreover, if reports are correct, the deal he got in Jacksonville is only slightly larger than the one he could have expected in Pittsburgh, showing just how cash strapped the Steelers are.
The Steelers also made another move, this one while not a surprise, it was disappointing.
To create salary cap space, the Steelers decided to part ways with eight year veteran Vince Williams, presumptively clearing the way for newly resigned Robert Spillane to assume duties as a full-time starter at inside linebacker. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are far more qualified than this scribe to make this “bang for the buck” calculation, but Vince Williams will be missed. More to come on this front.
Finally, Mike Hilton appears to be signing with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Banner and Another Two Year Deal…
Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that Zach Banner’s new deal is for $9.5 million and includes a $3.25 million signing bonus. Unlike Cam Sutton, the amount of money that Banner got wasn’t a suprise, given Banner’s more limited resume and his recent ACL tear.
Like Cam Sutton’s deal, Zach Banner’s is also for two years….
Again, this is slightly out of character for the Steelers, who typically give 2nd year contracts that last for 3 years, or more. Moreover, veterans like David DeCastro, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson are all heading into the final year of their contracts, leading to speculation that the Steelers Brain Trust has penciled in 2021 as the final year it will make a run with this core of veterans, including Ben Roethlisberger.
It is too early to tell, but at this point we can say “Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence….”
Sutton played in each of the rest of the Steelers games in 2017, and saw his playing time increase in the coming year where he logged 46% of the defensive snaps, working in behind starters Steven Nelson, Joe Haden and Mike Hilton.
During 2020, Cam Sutton intercepted one pass, defensed eight more passes, forced 3 fumbles and recovered one of those. Per Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Sutton logged a career-high 53% of all defensive snaps. Of the Steelers “signable” free agents, keeping Cam Sutton in Pittsburgh was clearly their biggest priority.
Arguably, the next most important signings for the Steelers would be offensive tackle Zach Banner and nose tackle Tyson Alualu.
Why Only 2 Years for Cam Sutton?
On the face of it, Cam Sutton appears to have taken a “hometown discount,” as 9 million over two years is hardly big payday for a proven NFL cornerback. Obviously, if Sutton and his agent had harder offers from outside of Pittsburgh, they wouldn’t have agreed to a deal so quickly.
But what is surprising is the term of the deal.
A one year “prove it” deal wouldn’t have been a surprise, but a two year deal does surprise, given the the Steelers typically sign their players to 3 year second contracts. At the beginning of the off season, Mark Kaboly of The Athletic observed that Steelers most important contracts ran through 2021.
Kaboly’s conclusion was that this was where management had seen the team’s natural window of Super Bowl viability ending.
Could Cam Sutton’s two year deal indicate that the team is now projecting into 2022? At this point its far too early to to tell but it is worth keeping an eye on.
Bud Bolts, Feiler Flies
While the news that Cam Sutton would be staying in Pittsburgh was a positive and perhaps a bit surprising, several free agents announced their decisions to sign elsewhere. Bud Dupree has apparently reached a deal to play with the Tennessee Titans and Matt Feiler will join the San Diego Chargers.
JuJu Smith-Schuter has not annouced his new home, but has informed players that he will be departing, and rumors have tied Mike Hilton to Philadelphia.
But Kevin Colbert’s ability to mine the NFL’s scrap heap for diamonds is unprecedented.
Just look at Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. Super Bowl XL featured the longest run from scrimmage in Super Bowl history, authored by Willie Parker. Super Bowl XLIII featured the longest return in Super Bowl history, authored by James Harrison. Both men were undrafted rookie free agents that Kevin Colbert spotted but the rest of the NFL overlooked.
Strictly speaking Mike Hilton wasn’t an undrafted rookie free agent when he arrived in Pittsburgh.
But he fits the prototype pretty well, has started for 4 straight seasons making himself as an impact player and he’s now a free agent. Will he stay in Pittsburgh long enough to make a run at a ring? Let’s find out.
T.J. Watt strip sacks Philip Rivers and Mike Hilton is there. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review
Capsule Profile of Mike Hilton’s Steelers Career
Jacksonville signed then cut Mike Hilton as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2016. The Patriots swooped in and added him to their practice squad, but Hilton’s stay in Beantown lasted all of one week. Mike Hilton held a pink slip in his hand for most of the rest of the season, until Pittsburgh signed him to the practice squad in December 2016.
Hilton was the St. Vincents sensation during the summer of 2017, a feat which landed him both a roster spot and a gig as the Steelers starting slot corner. As a rookie Mike Hilton made two interceptions, knocked away six passes, while flying in under the radar for four quarterback sacks.
The sack sagged a bit in 2018 and 2019, but Hilton’s consistent play has continued for a Steelers secondary that has gone from a team weakness to a strength with him a part of the lineup. In 2020, Mike Hilton posted what might have been his best season, pulling down 3 interceptions, sacking opposing quarterback 3 times and registering 8 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mike Hilton in 2021
NFL teams must have 3 competent cornerbacks. A starter-caliber nickle back is no longer a “Nice to have.” Mike Hilton has fulfilled that role for 4 years, and has delivered excellence to the position. He’s been durable playing in 59 games in four years, and at age 27 still has many years of his prime ahead of him.
Mike Hilton has an uncanny an ability to be around the ball
You can see it in his high sack total and impressive tackles for loss numbers, you can also see it in the photo above, T.J. Watt is the one making the strip-sack of Philip Rivers, but Hilton is right there in the frame.
Really, the only question is why haven’t the Steelers already locked Mike Hilton up to a long term contract?
The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mike Hilton in 2021
Mike Hilton had a great year in 2020, and he did it while splitting time with Cam Sutton.
There’s a reason for that, and that’s because Cam Sutton is a better coverage cornerback than Mike Hilton is. Cam Sutton might not be as good at pressuring the passer as Mike Hilton nor can he create mischief behind the line of scrimmage, but Sutton can do something that Mike Hilton hasn’t done and probably never will:
Move outside when needed.
Joe Haden will be 32 next season. If there’s one position where players tend to “get old fast” in the NFL, it is at cornerback. All signs indicate that Joe Haden will be back in 2021, but then what? Justin Layne certainly hasn’t shown he’s the answer there. Cam Sutton has shown that he might be.
The Steelers quite simply cannot sign both Cam Sutton AND Mike Hilton, and given a choice between the two, they should opt for Sutton.
Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mike Hilton in 2021
Mike Hilton has been a tremendous player for the Steelers and is yet another feather in Kevin Colbert’s cap. Perhaps under a normal year, the Steelers could afford to bring him back and Cam Sutton.
The “story” on the Pittsburgh Steelers since they lost to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV has been, “Can Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin rebuild the defense while Ben Roethlisberger remains in his prime?”
And no position has been more challenging for the Steelers than cornerback.
Keenan Lewis developed slowly and by the time he got good, he was gone. The Steelers thought they had “the answer” in Cortez Allen, until injuries and mystery conspired to sabotage his career. Joe Haden‘s arrival in 2017 changed things at cornerback for the better, but then fate dealt a mortal blow to the Steelers defensive rebuild: Ryan Shazier suffered a career ending injury.
But on of the unmentioned ironies accompanying Ryan Shazier’s tragic injury is that the night also marked the NFL debut of another promising cornerback for Pittsburgh, Cam Sutton who is in the spot light today.
Cameron Sutton recovers the onside. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today
Capsule Profile of Cam Sutton’s Career with the Steelers in 2021
Perhaps it would have been different had the Steelers not signed Joe Haden that summer. Furthermore, Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss, came out of nowhere that same year and took the Steelers secondary by storm as a very productive slot corner. Sutton spent his first few seasons increasing his position flexibility at the corner position, the slot corner position and even at safety.
However, it was in 2020 that Sutton finally had a bit of a breakthrough, appearing in 16 games and starting six at cornerback. Sutton recorded one interception, eight passes defended and 30 tackles a season ago. That he did this in the final year of his rookie deal certainly makes him much more attractive in free agency.
The Case for the Steelers Resigning Cam Sutton in 2021
Again, Sutton has position flexibility, something that has always been a valuable commodity to head coach Mike Tomlin. Of course, the position the Steelers would likely need Sutton to fill in 2021 is slot corner, and that is because it seems highly unlikely that they’ll be able to retain the services of Hilton, who is considered one of the best in the business.
Mike Hilton is going to command big money on the open market. Sutton will certainly get a raise, but if the Steelers can retain him at a reasonable price, he could fill a huge void in 2021.
The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Cam Sutton in 2021
Honestly, the only negative would be the fact that Sutton put himself on the map in 2020 and could really cash in on the open market. Life is all about timing, and if some team presents Cam Sutton with an offer that he simply can’t refuse, the Steelers probably wouldn’t have the cap space to compete.
Curtain’s Call on Cam Sutton in 2021
I think the Steelers should do whatever they can within reason to retain Sutton. They spent years trying to rebuild their secondary, and I can’t imagine how much weaker it could be if their top two slot corners from a year ago exited via free agency.
Now that Ben Roethlisberger has confirmed he’s coming back, we can start making some projections as to how this decision will play out….
…OK, the Steelers still need to weather free agency and then hit the 2021 NFL Draft.
These are two huge variables that will have an impact on the 2021 season. But here is a look at Worst, Best and Most Realistic Scenarios for the Steelers in light of Ben Roethlisberger’s return for the 2021 season.
Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Images via The SteelersWire
Worst Case Scenario for Ben Roethlisberger’s Return
The risks of a Roethlisberger return are real. Here’s a worst case scenario:
Ben never gets comfortable with the “bionics” of his new arm.
Therefore, he’s limited to the short passing game.
Defenses catch on. Except this time it doesn’t take them 2 months.
Worse yet, the Steelers can’t rebuild their offensive line nor field a strong running game.
If that happens 2021 autumn will drag on. The Steelers could perhaps sniff a playoff spot, but in the hyper-competitive AFC North, they could easily find themselves in a knockdown, drag out fight to avoid finishing 4th place.
If Ben Roethlisberger never finds his comfort zone with the “bionics” of his new arm, then even an 8-8 or 9-7 effort is likely the best case outcome, which would have a snowball effect, in that the Steelers would drafting in the middle, rather than early in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Best Case Scenario for Ben Roethlisberger’s Return
Here’s a best case scenario for a Ben Roethlisberger return:
Ben gains comfort with the “bionics” of his new arm.
Joe Haden doesn’t lose a step. Sutton resigns. The defense is dominant.
Wishful thinking? Maybe.
But towards the end of the awful 6-10 2003 campaign, Bob Labriola reflected on the Steelers woe and mused that “offensive lineman don’t grow on trees” and liked the Steelers road to improvement to an overweight person’s battle to get fit – don’t expect it to happen over night.
But the Steelers did field a strong offensive line in 2004, their defense got better, and they finished 15-1.
Most Realistic Scenario for Ben Roethlisberger’s Return
As someone who supported bringing Ben Roethlisberger back in 2021, the most realistic scenario return lies somewhere in between the best and worst case. It would look like this:
Ben Roethlisberger falls into a rut, of struggling early in games and then getting hot
The Steelers offensive line is better (how can get be worse) but Ben’s immobility is an issue
Joe Haden still has something left in the tank, but often needs safety help
Tyson Alualu returns, mans the middle like a champ, then gets hurt and is lost for the season
With that in mind, the most likely end game for the 2021 Steelers is that Pittsburgh is competitive, makes the playoffs, but falls short. The God’s honest truth is that this is the most likely scenario.
But its also true that the Steelers their chances for making run at Lombardi Number 7 are far better with Ben Roethlisberger than with Mason Rudolph.
Taken from the grade book of an again tardy teacher whose summer has started too soon, here is the Steelers Final Report Card for the 2020 season.
Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey after the wild card loss to the Browns. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via USA Today for the win.
At age 38 and coming off of elbow surgery Ben Roethlisberger performed better than anyone had the right to expect. His passer rating was a hair above his career average and he threw only 10 interceptions. Sacks were at a career low. Yet the long ball troubled him all year and defenses exploited his one-dimensional game late in the season, when it counted the most. In the final analysis, Ben Roethlisberger was “Good, but…” which makes his grade obvious. Grade: B-
The 2020 Steelers were league bottom feeders in rushing, put up historic lows for the franchise and couldn’t “get ONE yard when they needed it,” so obviously the running backs must have been terrible, right? Actually, that’s not right. James Conner proved that with good blocking, he can be a good but not great running back. Conner also confirmed he can be counted on in the short passing game. Benny Snell showed he can be a good number 2 running back. Anthony McFarland never grew beyond rookie flashes. Jaylen Samuels saw spot duty and did OK. Grade: C-
Tight Ends Eric Ebron made some nice catches and was an asset in the Red Zone. However, as Steel City Insider’s DI Davis documented, he was an absolute liability as a blocker. Nor did he gain much after the catch. Vance McDonald delivered when called upon but saw his role decline. The Steelers needed more from their tight ends. Grade: C-
Wide Receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster authored the type of season that everyone expected of him after 2018. He made combat catch after combat catch and was easily the Steelers most reliable target. Diontae Johnson had a strong year and showed why he can be special. Still, his drops hurt the team. Badly. Chase Claypool authored and impressive year for a rookie and the Notre Dame grad has a bright future ahead of him. James Washington was the unit’s forgotten man, but he delivered when called on. Grade: B+
James Washington catches a touchdown against the Browns. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com
How times have changed. As recently as 2018, these spots started with “one of the best offensive lines in football.” Today? Not so much. Let’s give the line credit for solid pass blocking. Even if Ben got rid of the ball quickly, he had good pass protection. Run blocking was a different story. It was “Above the line” early in the year, but the line’s performance changed as the leaves on the trees changed, and then ultimately fell. The high snap to open the playoffs was a mortal mistake. Grade: F
Defensive Line Cam Heyward led this unit in tackles and overall performance, even if Stephon Tuitt had 11 sacks. Overall the defensive line’s play was solid throughout the year. Grade: B
With T.J. Watt, Vince Williams, Devin Bush and Bud Dupree the Steelers fielded a foursome on par with the 2008 defense and those of the Blitzburgh defenses in the 1990s. Ultimately, injuries took their toll on this unit, even if Robert Spillane and Avery Williamson did well given the circumstances. Grade: B
Minkah Fitzpatrick knocks the ball away from Wille Snead as Justin Layne lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via Fansided.com
Secondary Minkah Fitzpatrick might not have had as many highlight or as many interceptions had he had in 2019, but he was still one of the best defensive backs in the league. Terrell Edmunds quietly authored another strong year as did Steven Nelson. Joe Haden was solid, although he did get burned a few times. Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton answered the call. Per Pro Football Focus ratings, the Steelers only allowed a “45.9 passer rating on throws over 10 yards downfield.” The secondary did its job. Grade: A-
Special Teams Chris Boswell missed 1 field goal all year and made all but 4 extra points, which ranks him a little low. Matthew Wright did an impressive job as a stand-in kicker. Dustin Colquitt couldn’t get it done as a punter, but Jordan Berry did a respectable job. Overall, the Steelers kick and punt return coverage was strong, even if it did wane a bit as the year progressed.
Ray-Ray McCloud was an asset to the team early in the season, both as a kick returner and a punt returner.
However, following his fumble against Washington he was never the same.
Regardless of whatever else ailed them in 2020, special teams was a strong spot for the Steelers. Grade: B
Mike Tomlin reacts to live mic F-bomb. Photo Credit: Twitter
Let’s credit Randy Fichtner for fielding an offense that was tailored to his players’ strengths and unlike anything we’d seen in the Roethlisberger era before. He also showed some willingness to innovate, early on at least.
However, as defenses adapted, the Steelers offense failed to adapt in kind.
Some of that is execution (see the opening play in the loss to Cincinnati), but ultimately the unit could not cope. For the 2nd straight season the running game faded and then failed when the Steelers needed it the most.
Keith Butler (or was it Mike Tomlin? ) began the year by fielding a shut down defense. Sure, the unit gave up a few too many long plays for comfort, but they also had the killer instinct to slam the door shut on teams when the got into the Red Zone on more than one occasion.
Injuries ultimately doomed this defense.
Finally, let’s start by giving Mike Tomlin credit for weathering the most unusual years in NFL history to lead his team to an 11-0 start. Yes, the Steelers did see another December collapse and fairly or unfairly, that mark remains on Tomlin’s resume. Grade: B
Unsung Hero Award
“You Shall Not Run!” That was the credo that the Steelers defense lived during September and October. The Steelers defense took the running game away from opponents and allowed its playmakers to do their damage. If the T.J.’s, the Minkahs and the Heywards collectively formed the football equivalent of Gandalf the Grey, then the staff bringing it all together was Tyson Alualu. He didn’t rack up a lot of stats, but his steady presence at nose tackle are what enabled the rest of the defense to fly and for that he wins the Steelers Unsung Hero Award for the 2020 season.
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“The Steelers must improve at cornerback.” The statement was a key takeaway from the loss in Super Bowl XLV. It got repeated at the beginning of each and every off season for the rest of the decade. Here’s why:
It was true. Cornerback WAS an area of Steelers need going into each off season.
During 2019, Steelers fans enjoyed the best cornerback play that they’ve seen since the heyday of the 2nd Super Bowl era of the ‘00’s and perhaps beyond. But does that mean they can ignore cornerback in the 2020 NFL Draft?
Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come
Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters
Being true to their nature, the Cleveland Browns inexplicably cut Joe Haden in August of 2017. The Steelers snapped him up immediately, made him an instant starter, and haven’t looked back since. A quick look at the stat sheet shows why:
In his first season Joe Haden had 1 interception. In his second he had 2, but one came against the Patriots. In his third season he had 5 interceptions while defending 17 passes.
Playing opposite Joe Haden is Steven Nelson.
The Steelers turned heads a year ago when they made him their biggest free agency signing in franchise history. After that, you didn’t hear the name “Steven Nelson” very much on Sunday afternoons. At most positions that would be an indictment, but in Steven Nelson’s case, you didn’t hear his name because he was shutting down his side of the field.
Starting in the slot between Haden and Nelson is Mike Hilton.
Mike Hilton is classic Kevin Colbert find, winning the job as a rookie and turning in an exceptional strong performance during the 2017 season. Hilton endured a bit of a sophomore slump in 2018, but bounced back in 2019 when he batted away 11 passes, intercepted a pass, recovered a fumble, and recorded a sack and half.
Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups
Cam Sutton is the Steelers “next man” up at cornerback, and Sutton brings an interesting, if uneven past to his fourth year in the league. The Steelers drafted him with their third round pick in the 2017 NFL Draftand Sutton drew praise during preseason. Injuries forced him to start the season on injured reserve, but the Steelers activated him late in the season against Cincinnati, in the December match up where Ryan Shazier’s career ended.
With Artie Burns struggling, Cam Sutton was expected to push for a serious playing time, if not a starting job in 2018.
That push never materialized. Sutton played in all 15 games, but was never really a factor. Sutton bounced back and authored a strong 2019, often rotating in for Hilton on 3rd downs. Sutton defended 5 passes, had an interception and recorded a sack.
After Cam Sutton, the Steelers have Justin Layne, the cornerback they picked in 3rd round of the 2019 out of Michigan State. Justin Layne is a graduate of Cleveland’s Benedictine High School, just as Chuck Noll was.
That pedigree didn’t help Justin Layne find the field as a rookie. By all accounts he struggled in training camp and appeared in 10 games a rookie.
The Steelers 2020 Cornerback Draft Needs
If it’s a draft, the Steelers must be looking to draft a cornerback, right? For 10 years that has been the conventional wisdom, although the Steelers have only used 4 premium picks on cornerbacks. Yet, the Steelers will enter this year’s draft without clutching their rosary beads in hopes that a hot prospect at corner falls to them.
Does that mean cornerback is a position they can ignore entirely?
That’s tempting, and the team certainly has other needs. But if Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin find themselves staring at a top corner who has fall, they need to think twice about passing because Joe Haden is turning 31 while Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton will be free agents next year.
With that said, Ben Roethlisberger is 37 and coming off of elbow surgery. So the Steelers focus should be on players who can help win this fall first, and future falls second. Given that the Steelers needs at cornerback heading into the 2020 NFL Draft should be considered Moderate-Low.