Keeping Steelers Free Agent Ahkello Witherspoon in Pittsburgh is a Priority

Long before digital media and Fantasy Football made everyone their own general manager, sports fans have loved trades. Just think back to that episode of Seinfeld, where George thinks he’s going to be promoted to Assistant General Manager of the New York Yankees.

  • George and Jerry immediately begin mapping out trades.

The Steelers made a few trades in 2021 and for awhile the Ahkello Witherspoon trade puzzled. Then Witherspoon answered the doubters. But as he becomes a free agent the question is, will he stay a Steeler?

Ahkello Witherspoon, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers 2022 free agent priorities

Ahkello Witherspoon’s intercepts a pass. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Capsule Profile of Ahkello Witherspoon’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers traded for Ahkello Witherspoon on September 3rd for a 5th round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. The Seahawks jettisoned Witherspoon just months after signing him to a 1 year 4 million dollar deal. Yet instead of playing him, the Steelers kept Ahkello Witherspoon inactive for 8 of the season’s first 9 weeks.

  • Everyone wondered, “Why did they trade for this guy?”

That answer became apparent as started to work his way into the lineup in the Steelers loss to the Chargers. He didn’t to much of note that night, but in his next two starts he began  defending passes making a tackles losses. In his 4th start his two interceptions helped spark a furious second half rally against the Vikings that fell just short.

Four weeks later, he brought down the interception that allowed Ben Roethlisberger to end his career at Heinz Field in the victory formation. Ahkello Witherspoon finished the season with 9 passes defensed, 3 interceptions and 15 tackles. Despite missing 8 games, he played in 57% of the defensive snaps.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Ahkello Witherspoon

Despite only playing in 9 games and making 3 starts, Ahkello Witherspoon led the team in interceptions and tied Cam Heyward for passes defensed.

  • What isn’t there to like about the guy?

Ahkello Witherspoon struggled to find his way in San Francisco and clearly Seattle found him expendable. Yet with the Steelers Witherspoon has found a home. Free agent cornerbacks don’t come cheap in this league, but the Steelers have the money to make the investment.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ahkello Witherspoon

Sure, Ahkello Witherspoon had his moments in 2021 with the Steelers and those interception numbers are nice, but let’s be honest, they all came in garbage time. A quick look at his game log in Pro Football Reference reveals that, although he’s only missed 2 games due to injury, he was in active in several others despite showing status a at least a part time starter.

  • What was it about him that the 49ers didn’t feel they could trust?
  • And why did the Seahawks part with him at a fire sale price?

That’s just too much risk and too much salary cap space for a player with too many yellow flags.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Ahkello Witherspoon

The Steelers have not only struggled at cornerback over the last dozen years, they’ve struggled to draft and develop their own. (Anyone remember Cortez Allen?) When they’ve had success, its been by bringing in outsiders, such as Joe Haden.

  • Sometimes players struggle to fit into a certain team and/or a certain scheme.

But Ahkello Witherspoon has shown he fits in in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers should making keeping him in the Steel City a priority.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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NFL Draft 2021: Is Cornerback Back as a Steelers Need?

Steel Curtain Rising has been doing the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix for the better part of the last decade.

  • A year ago something new, and dare we say exciting, happened.

In previous years, cornerback would invariably stand out as a top Steelers need. But last year was different. Last year we went as far as to rate Pittsburgh’s need at cornerback as Low-Moderate. Can history repeat itself in 2021? Time to find out.

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception, Steelers vs Bills

Cam Sutton intercepts Josh Allen. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2021 NFL Draft: The Starters

The Steelers may not draft cornerbacks very well (see Artie Burns.) Nor can they keep them healthy (see Senquez Golson, and Cortez Allen after a fashion.) Nor do they seem to have a knack for trading for them (See Brandon Boykin and/or Justin Gilbert.

  • But they do seem to transform other team’s trash into Pittsburgh’s treasure.

Such is the case with Joe Haden, whom the Steelers swooped up after Cleveland Browns cut in him 2017. Pittsburgh hasn’t looked back since, as Joe Haden started 56 games, hauled in 10 interceptions (or 3 fewer than Ike Taylor’s career total), taken home a pick six, and batted away 48 passes.

Joe Haden will be 32 next year and may be slowing a step, but the Steelers made clear how much they valued him when they opted to cut Steven Nelson who started alongside him.

In his place, Pittsburgh will start Cam Sutton. Cam Sutton was the Steelers 3rd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft who, as fate would have it, saw his first action in the 2017 road game against Cincinnati where Ryan Shazier’s career ended. Since the Sutton had developed slowly, but steadily.

He’s logged 3 interceptions during his first four years, and started 6 games in 2020 and his forced fumble was one of the lone bright spots in a remarkably ugly loss to the Bills.

  • In today’s NFL the slot corner is essentially a starter.

The Steelers don’t have one as Mike Hilton signed with the Bengals as a free agent after manning the positon for 4 years.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2021 NFL Draft: The Backups

One of the Steelers two backups at cornerback will occupy the role of the slot corner. That player will be expected to slide over to the edge while Cameron Sutton moves over to the slot on third down just as Deshea Townsend did.

James Pierre made the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent during 2020 training camp, and appeared in all 16 games, including 12% of the defensive snaps in the Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns.

  • James Pierre’s playing time came at the expense of Justin Layne.

Justin Layne was the Steelers 3rd round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, who was drafted on “measurable” as opposed to pedigree. Layne began at wide receiver and transitioned over to cornerback late during his time with the Michigan State Spartans.

He appeared in 10 games as a rookie and all 16 games during the regular season. But tellingly, the coaches after getting 26% of the defensive snaps in the regular season road loss to the Browns, coaches looked to Pierre over Layne for the playoffs. Justin Layne was of course arrested last week.

The Steelers also have free agent Trevor Williams, a five year veteran with 27 starts and 41 games under his belt from his time with the Chargers, Cardinals and most recently the Eagles. The Steelers also have first year veteran Stephen Denmark on their roster.

Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Cornerback

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftWhen the news broke of Justin Layne’s legal troubles, my reaction was, “Better now than after the draft.” Over at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Tim Benz opined that Layne’s judicial woes probably won’t change the Steelers plans.

  • Benz may be right.

With Trever Williams the Steelers brought in some experience to supplement the youthful potential they have at cornerback, which is a wise move. But right now the Steelers have an aging quality corner on one side and a probably up-and-comer on the other side with little behind them.

Which is to say the Steelers need depth and/or a possible future starter, so their need at cornerback heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate-High.

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The Steven Nelson Trade News was the Type of Surprise Steelers Fans Dread

Going into the free-agency phase of the Steelers offseason, there really wasn’t much that would surprise this fan and writer, someone who had long-since accepted the team’s fate as it pertained to a salary cap purgatory situation that had to be dealt with.

  • Only $6 million under the cap, Pittsburgh’s moves were likely going to be unspectacular.
  • Departures figured to sting anywhere from a little to a lot.
Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Not surprisingly, the first week of free-agency went about as expected — or, should I say the first few days of the first week of free agency? The Steelers lost Bud Dupree, Mike Hilton, Matt Feiler and even Tyson Alualu fairly quickly. While some may have hurt more than others, only the most optimistic — and naive (let’s be real) — Steelers fans should have been totally taken aback by anyone that departed.

But the news on Friday, however, was quite shocking, and it came at you in one, giant good news/bad news wave. First, the good news: The Steelers signed receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to a one-year deal for $8 million.

Next, the bad news: ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Steelers had granted cornerback Steven Nelson permission to seek a trade.

While you may have been pleasantly surprised to hear about the Steelers re-signing of Smith-Schuster, the news about Nelson had to rock you a little.

After all, even when it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Smith-Schuster would depart after receiving a huge, multi-year deal, the consensus was that Pittsburgh would still be fine at receiver; third-year man, Diontae Johnson and second-year man, Chase Claypool have already shown a ton of potential, as has fourth-year, man James Washington, a youngster who may just simply need a real opportunity to show what he can do. Besides, the Steelers have been fantastic at drafting and developing receivers for over a decade now; therefore, why would it be any different if they decided to take another one in the 2021 NFL Draft?

  • The secondary, on the other hand, may not be so easy for Pittsburgh to restock and reload.
  • There’s no sugar coating it:  The Franchise as struggled for a decade to draft and develop cornerbacks and safeties.

After that mostly didn’t work — and, “mostly” may be kind (anyone remember Cortez Allen or Senquez Golson?) — the Steelers had to go outside of the organization to find major talent, including cornerback Joe Haden, a post-cut free-agent signing in 2017; cornerback Steven Nelson, an unrestricted free agent in 2019; and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, a trade acquisition early in the 2019 regular season. Yes, while Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent, who made the team in 2017, can be considered a homegrown talent, same with 2017 third-round pick, Cam Sutton, the Steelers obviously couldn’t rely on their own resources when it came to turning the secondary from a liability into a strength.

Considering how hard it is to find blue-chip defensive backs in the area of the first round where the Steelers normally draft–this year, that area of the first round will be 24th–I doubt they really want to have to try again.

  • With all that in mind, I don’t think the Steelers really want to trade Nelson.

In my opinion, this is mostly a one-sided issue with Nelson and his agent forcing things. Think about it, why would the Steelers want to part with Nelson, who is in the final year of his contract and is slated to make $8.25 million in base salary? The Steelers would be hard-pressed to find another free-agent cornerback who can play the position as well as Nelson has the past two years, and at such a bargain rate. As for the draft? See above.

Ah, but that’s probably where the problem lies. Nelson likely feels that he’s severely underpaid, and when the two parties presumably had talks about a contract extension on the eve of free agency, Nelson was looking for a deal similar to what the top cornerbacks were earning–including a boatload of guaranteed money–and he wanted it asap.

  • You know how the Steelers are about guaranteed money, at least past the first year of a deal.

I don’t know what offers the Steelers will get for a trade involving Nelson. I also don’t know what’s going to happen if they don’t receive any offers that they deem worth it. Short of a contract agreement or trade that really works for Pittsburgh, I’d like to see Nelson stick around for at least one more year.

  • I seriously hope the Steelers don’t simply release the veteran if they can’t trade him.

Can a Steelers’ secondary that really just came into its own in 2019 absorb the losses of both Hilton and Nelson in one offseason? I don’t think so. I know Sutton has been retained and is capable of playing on the outside and in the slot, but he’s only one guy.

In conclusion, the Steelers secondary may again be a liability in 2021, and that is the kind of surprise that could cause a lot of fans to have heart attacks next season.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Keeping Cam Sutton in Free Agency is a Challenge Steelers Must Meet

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.

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton onsides kick recovery, Steelers vs Chargers

Cameron Sutton recovers the onside. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today

Capsule Profile of Cam Sutton’s Career with the Steelers in 2021

As part of such a high-profile Steelers 2017 draft class that included T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner, Cam Sutton, a third-round pick out of Tennessee, was a bit of a forgot man, even if he did play a position — cornerback — that was still considered to be problematic for Pittsburgh.

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.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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In First Start, Can Cam Sutton Prove Steelers Secondary Has “Turned a Corner?”

Turning points in sports can be curious things. Sometimes you can see them coming. Other times they surprise yet are obvious immediately after the fact. And yet, on some occasions, a turning point can occur yet not be obvious until a long time after.

  • Monday December 4th, 2017 marked a clear turning point for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense.

Everyone immediately knew that Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion represented a clear season-changer for the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers. Shazier’s injury impacted the rest of the 2017 season, and arguably every decision the Steelers made during the 2018 off season.

  • Yet the loss of Ryan Shazier may not have been the only turning point for the Steelers defense that evening.

Cam Sutton made his NFL debut that night, and the only turning point that the rookie cornerback’s debut seemed to mark was the one where the Steelers coaches officially reached the point of desperation.

Cam Sutton, Mike Tomlin, Steelers Cornerbacks

Cam Sutton and Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: Saturday Down South

Pittsburgh had lost Joe Haden halfway through the Colts game, since losing Haden the Steelers had given up a 57 yard touchdown pass in every 27 and a half minutes of play. And here were Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Carnell Lake, activating to a rookie 3rd round draft pick from IR who’d had all of 6 quarters of preseason experience.

  • Yeah, the Steelers certainly seemed desperate.

Things are very different going into the second game of the 2018 season. Joe Haden injured his hamstring in the Steelers 21-21 tie with the Browns and is likely to miss the game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Yet no one is panicking.

  • Cornerback has been pegged as one of Pittsburgh’s weaknesses since Super Bowl XLV.

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have tried to address the weakness with a mix of high-profile players (i.e. Cortez Allen) and MoneyBall type signings (bringing William Gay back in 2013, signing Brice McCain) with mixed success.

Cam Sutton still must prove himself in his first start, and Artie Burns needs to translate the flash he showed at St. Vincents to Heinz Field, while Mike Hilton can be counted on to continue to deliver.

But if they can accomplish that, then Cam Sutton’s addition to the secondary will have officially marked at turning point for the Steelers at cornerback.

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The Colbert Record: Steelers 2013 Draft Grades Are In: C+ Overall

It’s time to grade the Steelers draft. No, not the Steelers 2018 Draft but rather the Steelers 2013 draft.

You know, the draft that saw the Steelers make a bold trade involving a third round pick, replace a veteran wide out and draft of a quarterback? Sounds like the Steelers 2018 draft, doesn’t it? The comparison is intentional because reinforces a fundamental lesson:

  • Accurately grading an NFL draft class takes time.

The Steelers 2018 draft class has spawned waves of criticism, while the Steelers 2013 draft class won its share of instant applause. SB Nation gave the Steelers 2013 draft an A, NFL.com  awarded it an A-.

  • Those grades don’t look so sharp today, do they?

Which doesn’t mean the Steelers 2013 Draft was a failure, but rather one that contained both failure and success as you’ll see below.

Steelers 2013 draft class, Steelers 2013 draft grades, Le'Veon Bell, Jarvis Jones, Vince Williams

Steelers 2013 draft picks Vince Williams, Le’Veon Bell & Jarvis Jones. Photo Credit: Pininterest

Steelers 2013 1st Round – Jarvis Jones – Bust

Is there anything new to say about Jarvis Jones? There’s not much. But it is useful to remember that Bucky Brooks of NFL.com claimed Jarvis Jones was the best pick made in the entire AFC North. Mel Kiper lauded Jarvis Jones as a “great pick.”

  • Other analysts, such as Gil Brandt, remained skeptical.

The skeptics were right. The Steelers were perhaps too patient with Jarvis Jones (ah, if only James Harrison had been on the field against Dallas….) As it is, Kevin Colbert’s first and only unqualified first round bust is Jarvis Jones. Grade: Bust.

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

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Steelers 2013 2nd Round – Le’Veon Bell – Grand Slam

Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated conceded that Le’Veon Bell “Fits this offense but may not have warranted pick 48.” Mel Kiper Jr. wasn’t thrilled with the Le’Veon Bell pick, but leave himself wiggle room by suggesting Bell might benefit from the Steelers line.

Le’Veon Bell’s 2nd franchise tag contract squabbles have damped his popularity, but Meril Hoge hit the nail on the head when he declared Le’Veon Bell the best back taken in the 2013 NFL Draft. Grade: Grand Slam.

Steelers 2013 3rd Round – Markus Wheaton – Serviceable Pickup

Nothing against NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks, but Brooks commended the Steelers for making Markus Wheaton the AFC North’s “steal of the draft.” Markus Wheaton wasn’t a steal. “Serviceable” is a better word to describe Markus Wheaton.

  • 3rd round picks should become starters, and Markus Wheaton started 22 games his two healthy seasons with the Steelers.

He wasn’t a superstar, but in some ways Markus Wheaton’s ability to come up with clutch third down catches brought to mind Hines Ward’s early years in the trenches. But injuries marred Markus Wheaton’s rookie and 4th seasons, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown missed Markus Wheaton him down the stretch in 2016.

The injuries weren’t his fault, but they limited Markus Wheaton’s value to the team. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Steelers 2013 4th Round A – Shamarko Thomas – Bust

The Steelers, like the rest of the league have been more active in trading for players, but trading away future premium picks to move up in the draft goes against the Steelers DNA.

And Shamarko Thomas shows way. The Steelers traded up to get Shamarko Thomas, and Mel Kiper Jr. hailed the move as a great value add. Shamarko Thomas arrived in Pittsburgh as Troy Polamalu’s heir apparent. He departed as an afterthought.

Aside from some immediate work with the secondary during his first few rookie games, Shamarko Thomas’s defensive snap total might be countable on a single hand. Thomas was a good gunner on special teams, but players that cost you a 4th and next year’s third round pick must deliver more. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2013 4th Round B – Landry Jones – Quality Value Pick

The 2013 NFL Draft marked a change in the Steelers backup quarterback philosophy. The Steelers had always staffed a veteran backup quarterback since Bill Cowher’s 1992 arrival.

Picking Landry Jones in the 4th round of the 2013 NFL draft was the product of Pittsburgh’s pivot. He wasn’t NFL ready in 2013 and or in 2014, but fought off 3 challengers at St. Vincent’s during the summer of 2015 as Landry Jones worked his way past Mike Vick for the number 2 spot and closed key victories against Arizona and Oakland in the process.

A large and vocal contingent of Steelers Nation remain hardened Landry Jones haters, but he’s worked himself into a competent NFL backup. Grade: Quality Value Pick

Steelers 2013 5th Round — Terry Hawthorne – Bust

In 20/20 hindsight, this move seems like another Steelers attempt to reload at cornerback on the cheap. But that’s not a fair assessment. Ike Taylor hadn’t shown signs of slowing in 2012, and Cortez Allen’s play late in 2012 made him appear like a stud poised to blossom.

  • And with William Gay’s return, the Steelers cornerback depth chart looked solid in the spring of 2013.

None of this changes the fact that Terry Hawthorne, Illinois the cornerback, both failed to catch on in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2013 6th Round A – Justin Brown – Disappointment

Justin Brown made the practice squad in 2013 which isn’t bad for a 6th round pick.

  • Word at the end of 2013 was that Justin Brown was looking good in practice.

Justin Brown made the regular season roster in 2014 and saw 21 balls thrown his way and he caught 12 of them. Still, as the Steelers closed in in the playoffs in late 2014, they deemed Brown expendable and he’s been heard from since. Grade: Disappointment

Steelers 2013 6th Round B – Vince Williams – Over Performer

Vince Williams experienced baptism by fire NFL style when an opening day injury to Larry Foote sent him from street clothes to starter in 3 weeks.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in December 2017. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

  • And make no mistake about it, Vince Williams struggled for much of the 2013 campaign.

Yet Vince Williams improved by season’s end, and did well in relief of Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence, and Lawrence Timmons during 2014, 2015 and 2016. The Steelers signed him to a contract extension in 2016 season, and year later he was starting in Timmons place.

Vince Williams isn’t an athlete who’ll compel fans to command he shift to safety. But Vince Williams is a physical player and an asset when surrounded with the right players – you don’t get 8 sacks as an inside linebacker by accident. Grade: Over Performer

Steelers 2013 7th Round – Nicholas Williams – Farm Team

On the day he was drafted, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell compared Nicholas Williams to Steve McLendon.

The Kansas City Chiefs reduced John Mitchell’s comparison to an academic one by poaching Nicholas Williams from the Steelers practice squad in 2014.

Pro football Reference tells us that Nicholas Williams made 26 appearances for the Chiefs and Dolphins from 2014 to 2016. Grade: Farm Team

Grading the Steelers 2013 Draft – C+

With 9 picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Steelers draft report card spans the spectrum, with 1 Grand Slam, 3 Busts, 1 Serviceable Pickup, 1 Disappointment, 1 Over Performer, 1 Quality Value Pickup and 1 Farm Team pick.

  • If you agree that a good draft should yield 3 starters, then the Steelers came up OK in 2013.

The fact that within 2 years, “experts” were labeling the 2013 NFL Draft as one of the worst overall drafts in recent league history only reinforces that assessment.

Yes, its true that only Vince Williams and Le’Veon Belll are starters, but Markus Wheaton was a legitimate starter when healthy, and Landry Jones was drafted to be a backup. And any draft that brings home a talent like Le’Veon Bell is by definition an “Above the Line” draft.

  • Yet, the Steelers 2013 NFL draft class was hardly an unqualified success.

The Steelers missed badly on Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas. Both of those misfires carried costly opportunity costs as forced Pittsburgh to redraft for the positions by picking Sean Davis in 2016 and T.J. Watt in 2017.

  • You can take the country from the boy, but you can’t take the boy from the country.

The part of me that was raised and reared in the US system of grading is tempted to give the Steelers 2013 Draft class a B-, “Good, but…” rating, but here in Argentina (where I’ve lived most of this century) grading is much more demanding, and so therefore I’ll give the Steelers 2013 Draft a C+.

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Steelers 2018 Cornerback Draft Needs – Is Corner Finally a Low Priority for Pittsburgh?

As legend has it, Super Bowl XLV badly exposed the Steelers at cornerback and cornerback has been Pittsburgh’s persistent draft needs since then.

  • Like most legends, this is founded upon truth.

While Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown and a few others Super Bowl XLV veterans remain, cornerback has sat atop any reasonable assessment of the Steelers needs in just about every NFL draft since then.

Should the 2018 NFL Draft be different? Let’s take a look.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden 1st Steelers Interception, Tyson Alualu, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Bengals

Joe Haden’s 1st Steelers interception. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn Live

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter

In successive off seasons, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin answered the pleas of Steelers Nation to address the cornerback position with a high profile move. In the 2016 NFL draft the Steelers took Artie Burns in the first round. Then, at the tail end of the 2017 preseason, Cleveland Browns cut Joe Haden and Pittsburgh promptly pounced.

After getting his feet wet in the slot for a few games as a rookie, Burns went on to start where he had his ups and downs. By the end of the season, however Burns was making plays and had proven himself to be an asset to the Steelers secondary.

Burns’ sophomore season did not go smoothly. Burns struggled at times, often against the deep ball. In Steel City Insider Craig Wolfley generously opined, “Artie Burns didn’t get worse, but he didn’t get better, either.”

People forget (and perhaps rightfully so) that during the first half of 2017, the Steelers defense flashed signs of shut-down level greatness. (The debacle in Chicago aside.)

  • The reason for that flirtation with greatness can largely be attributed to Joe Haden.

Sound strange because you didn’t hear “Joe Haden” much early in the season? Well, that is a good thing. If you’re not convinced, consider that as soon as Haden fell injured, the Steelers starting giving up keep pass plays on a 20 minute basis.

Joe Haden’s return helped stabilize a defense reeling for the loss of Ryan Shazier, and he figures to assume a true leadership role in 2018.

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

In his rookie season with Pittsburgh, Mike Hilton delivered everything to the Steelers that injuries prevented his college roommate, Senquez Golson, from delivering.

  • Mike Hilton made plays all over the field, whether it was breaking up passes, sacking the quarterback, tackling players behind the line of scrimmage or intercepting the ball.

After spending the first part of the season on IR, rookie Cameron Sutton got into the game against Cincinnati, and then earned his first start in the Steelers heart breaking loss to the Patriots, and has looked good in limited exposure.

Coty Sensabaugh currently holds down a roster spot. The free agent pickup started in place of Joe Haden and did OK at times, and struggled mightily at others. Behind him, the Steelers have Brian Allen. Allen is a raw prospect whom the Steelers picked in the 5th round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Allen saw some limited action on special teams early in the season, and was active for the final 8 games of the season.

Steelers 2018 Cornerback Draft Needs

Since Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers have made many attempts address the cornerback position. They’ve invested premium/mid-round picks on players who ended up as busts (Curtis Brown,) another who flashed brilliance only to implode (Cortez Allen) and yet another who saw injuries end his career before it started (Senquez Golson.)

The Steelers have used late round picks on players who barely became blips on the radar screen (Doran Grant, Shaquille Richardson, Terry Hawthorne and Terrance Fredrick.)steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

The Steelers have signed free agents who played above their contract and provided vital stability (William Gay) and others who also did better than expected by weren’t good enough to keep around (Brice McCain).

With the presence of Joe Haden, Artie Burns, Cam Sutton, Mike Hilton along with the potential offered by Brian Allen it’s tempting to say the Steelers have “addressed their need at cornerback” and can look elsewhere in this year’s draft.

  • That’s a temptation that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin must resist.

Certainly the Steelers have more pressing needs on defense alone than those at cornerback. But you need 3 starting-caliber cornerbacks in today’s NFL, and Cam Sutton while promising remains unproven, and Artie Burns lack of progress last year cannot be ignored. Therefore the Steelers 2018 draft need at Cornerback must be rated Moderate.

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Lessons, Failures & Successes of 2013 & 2014 Drafts Fuel Steelers Signings of Bostic and Burnett

In this great future you can’t forget your past….”
– Bob Marley, “No Woman, No Cry”

You don’t often see Bob Marley lyrics leading a column on the Steelers, but hey the Reggie legend did give his last concert in Pittsburgh back when Terry Bradshaw and Joe Greene held a 2-1 mark in their quest for “One for the Thumb” in September 1980, so I guess that gives us some connection.

And while you can bet the mortgage Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin didn’t have the Marley’s words ringing in their ears the last week, the decisions to sign Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett show they’ve taken Marley’s wisdom to heart.

“How’s that?” you ask? Well, simply look back to the lessons of the 2013 and 2014 Draft.

Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones,

Jarvis Jones & Ryan Shazier during a Steelers practice in January 2016. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via San Diego Union Tribune

Lessons of 2013 and 2014 Draft & the Arrival of Bostic and Burnett

In 2013, the Steelers were caught in a serious salary cap crunch. LaMarr Woodley had just finished his 2nd season on IR, Chris Carter wasn’t proving to be “the steal of the 2010 NFL Draft,” (as one journalist had claimed he’d be) and Jason Worilds had only shown flashes.

In hindsight, Steelers management erred in determining that James Harrison was nearing the end. Yet injuries had forced James Harrison to miss large chunks of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons and he’d played much of 2010 with an injured arm. And Harrison was set to make somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 to 9 million dollars.

Sure salary caponomics rather than X’s and O’s dictated that decision, but no amount of number crunching could save the Steelers from harsh reality that they had to come out of the 2013 NFL Draft with a pass rushing outside linebacker.

Today, it is easy to slam the Jarvis Jones pick. Jarvis Jones is legitimately Kevin Colbert’s only first round bust. Clearly SOMEONE else on the board could have delivered more value to the Steelers. Fair enough. But Mike Maycock was rating Jones as the 19th best player in the draft and some mocks actually had Jarvis Jones going off the board at 15, two spots before the Steelers took him.

But that’s not the point.

  • In 2013 the Steelers hands were largely tied, and no one likes having choices made for them

It leaves you with a detestable feeling. Think about the “voluntary” hoops you need to jump through during a pre-employment process that aren’t so “voluntary” if you actually want the job.

In football terms, being forced to let need dictate your first round draft choice is dangerous not necessarily because of who you pick but because of who you must pass over.

At the end of the 2013 season, it was clear that the Steelers secondary was in need of repair. Early on, the only question seemed to be whether the Steelers would go corner first and safety second in the draft or visa versa. Even after the Steelers signed Mike Mitchell, fans “knew” the Steelers would target cornerback early and perhaps often.

As it turns out, the Steelers had less at cornerback than they thought, erring in thinking they could get another year out of Ike Taylor while Cortez Allen’s career imploded in splendid fashion for reasons that have never been explained.

  • So when it came time to pick, the Steelers surprised everyone by drafting Ryany Shazier in first round.

The Ryan Shazier pick came despite the fact that with Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, Sean Spence and Terence Garvin the Steelers entered the 2014 draft with quality depth at inside linebacker. But Ryan Shazier offered the Steelers generational talent and prior to his injury was flashing Troy Polamalu type playmaking ability.

By signing Jon Bostic and signing Morgan Burnett, the Steelers are trying to give themselves the freedom to make the same kind of pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Word to the Wise

Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett arrive in Pittsburgh with some risk in that both men have fought injuries, and the Ladarius Green experience teaches us just how quickly injuries can derail a promising free agent signing.

  • But the presence of both men will free Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin from having to reach to get an inside linebacker or a safety.

It’s also important to remember that drafting for need sometimes ends well, as the picks of Heath Miller and Santonio Holmes from the 2005 and 2006 drafts show us. But its sure is a lot better go enter a draft with the freedom of picking the player you want to pick, instead of taking someone you need to take.

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The Wild Ride of William Gay’s Steelers Career Comes to an End. Thank You Big Play Willie Gay!

In a long anticipated move, the Steelers cut William Gay the veteran cornerback who has served as a pillar of stability in Pittsburgh’s secondary for the last decade. In doing so they severed ties with the final draft pick from the 2007 NFL Draft, the Steelers first draft with Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at the helm.

Defensive back is a young man’s game, and William Gay will be 4 months shy of his 34th birthday on the Steelers opening day in 2018. He also carries a $1,750,000 salary that the Steeler figure to use more constructively elsewhere.

Judging by his Instagram post, he isn’t ready to being “Life’s Work” but with his time in Pittsburgh over, we now look back at the wild ride that was William Gay’s Steelers career and take a moment to say “Thank you Big Play Willie Gay.”

William Gay, William Gay Pick Six, William Gay interception, Big play Willie Gay, Steelers vs Falcons

William Gay’s 52 yard pick six vs Falcons in 2014. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

2007-’08 – William Gay Goes from “Trying to Survive” to Starter

With Ike Taylor, Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden topping the depth chart, cornerback didn’t figure to be a priority for Pittsburgh in the 2007 NFL Draft. After going (almost) all-in on defense by drafting Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and Ryan McBean with their first, second and fourth picks the Steelers went back to defense in the 5th round, drafting William Gay out of Louisville.

As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell pointed out, when questioned about an impressive preseason outing Mike Tomlin responded “William Gay’s just trying to survive!” William Gay not only survived but contributed in his rookie year, but his efforts were confined to special teams and spot duty in the secondary.

  • But it was in in 2008 William Gay began to turn heads.

Due to injuries, Gay made 4 starts at cornerback and effectively alternated with Bryant McFadden at other times. The Steelers 2008 defense was a special unit, and Gay’s played a small, yet important role in their success that culminated in Super Bowl XLIII.

William Gay played so well in 20018 that made Bryant McFadden expendable as he departed for Pittsburgh West aka Arizona.

2009 – William Gay Not Ready for Prime Time

Unfortunately, William Gay wasn’t quite ready for Prime Time.

  • 2009 proved to be a rough year not only for Gay, but for the entire Steelers secondary.

Troy Polamalu got injured in the season opener, and the Future Hall of Famer only played 4 more games that season. The rest of the Steelers defensive backfield struggled in his absence. By late November Steelers 2009 secondary was shell-shocked, and William Gay was in far enough in over his head that Mike Tomlin rotated Joe Burnett with him in the Steelers infamous ’09 loss to Cleveland.

William Gay seemed destined to become a footnote in Steelers secondary history.

2010- ’11 – Moving to the Slot Rejuvenates William Gay’s Steelers Career

Bryant McFadden’s return to Pittsburgh seemed to spell doom for Gay as it forced him into the role of slot corner. Instead the move probably rejuvenated his career. During the 2010 season, Gay led the Steelers in passes defensed and also recorded two sacks.

Going into 2011 Bryant McFadden remained the starter nod, but injuries led to Gay starting most of the season, where he defensed another 13 passes, and recorded two interceptions, including a game-clincher against Cincinnati in November.

However, with Cortez Allen on the rise (or so we thought) and Keenan Lewis showing signs of development, the Steelers opted to let Gay sign with Pittsburgh West and, once again, William Gay’s Steelers career seemed to have come to and end.

2013-’17 – “Big Play Willie Gay” Shines in His Second Steelers Act

…And like Bryant McFadden before him, William Gay’s stay with the Cardinals would only last one season. The Cardinals cut him, and the Steelers wasted little time in resigning him. Second acts with the Steelers have become a stable of the Colbert-Tomlin era, as Larry Foote, Antwaan Randle El, Byron Leftwich, Will Allen and Matt Spaeth all departed Pittsburgh as free agents only to return.

  • But Big Play Willie Gay probably had the brightest second act of any Steeler.

When the Steelers resigned William Gay in March of 2013, it was rightly interpreted as a Moneyball type move made in an effort to sort of secure a compensation prize for franchise too salary cap strapped to resign Keenan Lewis.

That may have been the case, but it was Moneyball at its best. The Steelers brought William Gay into man the slot, but Ike Taylor’s decline and Cortez Allen’s implosion led to Gay starting 52 games between 2013 and 2017.

A dispassionate analysis of William Gay’s contributions during this time would likely credit him with providing stability to a secondary staffed by plugins and accidental starters (see Antwon Blake and Brice McCain). But it was his penchant for explosive plays that earned him the love of Steelers Nation:

William Gay also had another interception returned for a touchdown negated by a penality in the Steelers 2016 win over the Bills. While he didn’t add any more pick sixes, Gay did intercept a pass against the Colts on Thanksgiving and again in 2017 in the Steelers home win against the Bengals.

As it happens to all great athletes, Father Time began gaining in the footrace with William Gay in 2016, as Artie Burns displaced him as the starter by the middle of the season, and rookie Mike Hilton took over the slot role in 2017.

There’d been talk of moving Gay to safety, and while Gay did play in a little bit of a hybrid safety-linebacker in 2017, the role never really emerged.

William Gay’s Place Among Steelers Corners + Thank You

When history ranks great Pittsburgh Steelers cornerbacks Hall of Famers Mel Blount, Rod Woodson and Jack Butler will come first followed by Ike Taylor and then probably Dwayne Woodruff. That gives Steelers Nation an undisputed top 5.

  • Should the work William Gay put on tape for the Steelers earn him a spot some where in the top 10?

Steel Curtain Rising will leave that for others to debate and decide. But there’s no disputing the fact that from 2013 until 2017 William Gay was most consistent contributor to the Steelers secondary.

He was also class act in the lockeroom and pillar of the community, and someone Steelers Nation should be proud to have had as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Thank you on behalf Steelers Nation and Good luck and God Speed Big Play Willie Gay!

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Steelers Hire Tom Bradley as Defensive Backs Coach. Bradley Inherits a Steelers Secondary at the Crossroads

The Pittsburgh Steelers announced that former Penn State Interim Head Coach Tom Bradley will join Mike Tomlin’s staff as defensive backs coach. Tom Bradley replaces Carnell Lake who announced his resignation as secondary coach a day earlier.

Tom Bradley played for Penn State as a defensive back, and joined Joe Paterno’s staff in 1979, working his way up from graduate assistant to defensive coordinator, a title he assumed in 2000.

  • Bradley also served as interim head coach in the fall of 2011, after the Penn State Board of Directors fired Joe Paterno as the result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Following his time at Penn State, Bradley served as assistant head coach at West Virginia in 2014, and then moved on to UCLA where he served as defensive coordinator until last season.

Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Steelers secondary, Tom Bradley

2016 draft picks Sean Davis and Artie Burns at the Steelers South Side Facility. Photo Credit: Via GZ Sports Report

Tom Bradley Inherits a Steelers Secondary at the Crossroads

Tom Bradley arrives in Pittsburgh as defensive backs coach at a moment when the Steelers secondary is at a crossroads. Following Super Bowl XLV, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin began rebuilding the Steelers defense from the back up, starting with defensive line, moving on to linebackers (with mixed success – contrast Jarvis Jones with Ryan Shazier) and finally moving to the secondary.

  • It may not be fair to “blame” Carnell Lake, but Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas were to early building blocks in that rebuilding effort both were tremendous disappointments.Those failures forced the Steelers to expend precious draft capital to re-draft those positions.

The redos at cornerback and safety came in the form of Artie Burns and Sean Davis in the first and second rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft. While both players struggled a bit early in their rookie years, they both made important strides during the second half of the season and were a big part of the turnaround of the Steelers 2016 defense.

  • Unfortunately, neither man appeared to grow much as a player in 2017 and perhaps it’s fair to argue that Artie Burns regressed.

With Ben Roethlisberger set to turn 36 before opening day 2018, the Pittsburgh Steelers simply cannot afford to hit the reset button with either Artie Burns or Sean Davis. And Burns and Davis’ development is hardly the only area of concern in the Steelers secondary.

  • Mike Mitchell, who only has one year left on his contract, did not play well in 2017.

His backup, Robert Golden, can hardly be considered as anything other than a “In case of emergency, break glass” replacement. William Gay rumored move to safety never materialized, and he looks more like a cornerback ready to begin “Life’s Work” than one set to learn a new position.

Joe Haden gives the Steelers stability on the other side, Mike Hilton offers promise in the slot, and Cam Sutton got a baptism by fire in the NFL, but turned in a strong rookie year, all things considered. Tom Bradley can also look forward to working with Brian Allen, who has little experience as a defensive back, but possesses the all-important measureables.

The bottom line is that the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary hasn’t been a strength on the defense since Ryan Clark was forced to curb his hard-hitting play and Troy Polamalu was striking hesitation into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks.

With Bud Dupree’s development stalled and Ryan Shazier only now standing, the Steelers defensive backfield must deliver more than it has been, and now its Tom Bradley’s job to ensure that this happens.

[Editors Note: The Steelers also hired Karl Dunbar as their defensive line coach. More on that tomorrow.]

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