Pittsburgh Signs Artie Burns, Highlighting Steelers 2016 Secondary Gamble

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

  • The outcome of this gamble is open to doubt however, and the Steelers 2016 Super Bowl hopes rest on its success.
steelers, artie burns, otas, cornerback, secondary, carnell lake

Artie Burns @ Steelers OTA’s with the ball in his hands; Photo Credit Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Watch Tower: Predicting Steelers Pick of Artie Burns, Almost Picking Jevon Kearse and More

A lot has happened since the Watch Tower last shined its lights at the end of March and today its focus is on the Steelers Draft, free agency’s finish, other Steelers-related comings and goings along with another round of “Taking Our Own Medicine.”

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Artie Burns addresses the press as Art Rooney II looks on; Photo credit: steelers.com

Paulk Wins Steelers Draft Prediction Prize

Who will we draft? Answering that question was once a simple water cooler conversation fueled the previous night’s banter AM sports-talk radio station. Now it’s a cottage industry. Mocking the next year’s draft begins before this year’s is complete with some pundits going as far as grading teams’ performance in mock drafts (seriously).

Grading mock draft IS excessive, but mock drafting is fun and arouses imaginations of pros and armatures alike, but the Steelers 2016 Draft Class shows just how much of a minefield it can be. Everyone knew that the Steelers would look to cornerback early in the 2016 NFL Draft, but the question of which corner the Steelers would take a hot potato.

  • Steelers Nation’s true winners in its 2016 mock draft sweepstakes is Ralph Paulk of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, who correctly tagged Artie Burns as the Steelers first round pick.

Other national writers made similar predictions, but Paulk was almost only Pittsburgh writer the Watch Tower is aware of that accurately predicted Burns going to the Steelers.

The “almost” qualifier might seem odd, but Jim Wexell also picked Burns going to the Steelers in the Steelers Digest pre-draft edition, but Wexell’s “official” pick 36 hours prior to the draft was cornerback James Bradberry from Stanford. (Alas, the Zino iPad App that I read Steelers Digest on has no linking functionality….)

Shift in Steelers Drafting Philosophy?

In an age where post-draft analysis/post draft grades is as instantaneous as it is meaningless, Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review distinguished himself by providing his readers with some meaningful insight the morning after that draft.

The Steelers 2016 draft class, in Kaboly’s estimation, confirms that the “Steelers have changed their drafting philosophy.” The change, in Kaboly’s view, comes down shifting form an emphasis on projection to one on production, particularly on the defensive side. As Kaboly expands:

The organizational shift away from deferring to what a player may be able do to what a player has already done continued for the Steelers for the second consecutive draft over the weekend.

One could certainly quibble with Kaboly’s conclusion, as both Artie Burns and Bud Dupree have been panned more as “Projects” as opposed to finished products, but Kaboly backs up his claim with Mike Tomlin’s “Speed without production is less attractive…” quote, and in pointing out that Pittsburgh have gone a dozen years since a Steelers cornerback has made 4 interceptions in a season and contrasted that with the 21 interceptions that Burns, Senquez Golson and Doran Grant recorded in their collegiate careers.

  • But even if he’s ultimately wrong on the project vs. production question, Kaboly wins Watch Tower Kudos for attempting to provide substantive post-draft day analysis.

So Steelers Almost Drafted Jevon Kearse….?

The Steelers decision to pick Artie Burns drew a lot of criticism from both the press and from Steelers Nation at large all of which prompted Jim Wexell to mount a vigorous defense of the pick. The logic of Wexell’s defense can perhaps be read here (the article sits behind his pay wall,) but it also included an eye-opening Steelers draft history nugget:

…But, still, the anger rolled in. One reader even called Burns “Troy Edwards,” in honor of the reach Tom Donahoe made in 1999 when — and I learned this a few days ago — they had the great Jevon Kearse ON THE PHONE AT THE TIME.

While it’s a little late to award a “scoop” on the Steelers 1999 draft, Wexell’s Jevon Kearse story qualifies as a major bombshell both in terms of reporting and in terms of what it potentially unveils about the depths of dysfunction that existed between Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher at the time.

  • On the site’s message board conversation yours truly suggested the nugget could be grown into a full-length story and the Watch Tower reaffirms that here.

A year ago the Watch Tower observed that stories abounded to explain how players like Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and the other Super Steelers arrived in Pittsburgh. In contrast, since then, stories from inside the Steelers draft war room have grown more and more scarce.

  • In just 46 words, Jim Wexell has taken a small step towards rectifying that, and the Watch Tower offers him thanks on behalf of Steelers Nation citizens who crave enlightenment.

Thank you Mr. Wexell.

An Overlooked Artie Burns-Jarvis Jones Link?

Finally, the Watch Tower’s analysis of Steelers draft coverage ends with a look at a long-form piece by Coolong on USA Today’s Steelers Wire.

  • Count Coolong squarely in the camp of the Artie Burns skeptics.

In his article, Coolong bases his skepticism on solid footing, and in doing so he draws out an interesting parallel to one of the questions Kevin Colbert was asked, about whether the rain influenced Burn’s workout times, as they apparently did during the workout of Jarvis Jones.

  • While that’s not an earth shaking connection, it is an interesting one tying together two picks who critics label as “reaches”

Beyond that, Coolong manages to make his case on Artie Burns in an article that weaves together treads concerning Bruce Arians’ firing and Todd Haley’s accomplishments. That’s no easy feat, but he pulls it off, leaving the Watch Tower to hope aloud that Coolong will manage to find more time to write similar pieces now that he’s been kicked upstairs to the position of Senior Editor of NFL Sites USA TODAY Sports Media Group.

Scoops on Jarvis Jones and Senquez Golson

As everyone in Steelers Nation now knows, the Steelers declined to offer a 5th year tender to Jarvis Jones, but Jason Mackey of DK on Pittsburgh Sports knew it before anyone else and beat the rest of his competition to the punch. Mackey was of course the first Steelers reporter to break the Martavis Bryant suspension story, so it would seem that he has a knack for finding news.

We now know that Senquez Golson’s MRI was not related to his shoulder injury, but is due to another “soft tissue injury.” Fair enough. And missing OTA’s in May for an MRI is hardly a reason to hit the panic button.

But the Steelers have a lot riding on Senquez Golson’s development – perhaps too much – and any news of an injury which might impede his development merits attention, so Lolley wins Watch Tower kudos for breaking it.

Watch Tower Takes Its Own Medicine

Watch Tower’s role to document and analyze press coverage of the Steelers with an eye toward understanding what makes it tick, offering positive or negative criticism when warranted. But if the Watch Tower is going to take reporters to task from time-to-time, then it this site’s own errors must receive the same critical eye.

  • And I’ve made a bunch of goofs of late.

Some have been trivial, such as forgetting to include cornerback in our Steelers pre-draft needs poll (something easily remedied). Others have resulted from legitimate confusion, such as mentioning that Dale Lolley’s blog was going behind a paywall (its hasn’t) or misstating that Jim Wexell is a self-identified alcoholic (he is not.)

Corrections have been made and apologies to Lolley and Wexell issued.

…Then there was the blog post that had Will Johnson following Steve McLendon to the New York Jets. Ah, yeah, Will Johnson went to New York alright, but as a Giant not as a Jet! Thankfully a reader on Twitter alerted me to the error and the post had a half-life of about 20 minutes.

  • Sure, the post came after a hectic workday and just before a 2 week long international trip.

Those were contributing factors, but the real culprit was getting so caught up in a sexy “Pittsburgh on Hudson” storyline that I missed the most fundamental of facts. Such lapses are inexcusable and to you my readers, I offer a heartfelt apology.

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Senquez Golson’s MRI Highlights Steelers Precarious Situation at Cornerback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is Mike Mitchell Emerging as a Leader of the Steelers Secondary?

Steelers 2016 OTAs began yesterday, and Steelers Nation got some news, well sort of. OTA’s are “football in shorts” and little real news comes out of them or otherwise the Steelers won’t let reporters record and post footage such as this:

Nonetheless, Steelers Nation learned Ben Roethlisberger has shed weight and is looking to be in top shape. Maurkice Pouncey looks healthy and Le’Veon Bell is running, cutting and calling out Vontaze Burfict trying to hurt people.

This latter bit of information tells us that Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler are not going to repeat what they did during 2014’s OTA’s when they immediately installed Ryan Shazier as the starter over veterans Vince Williams and Sean Spence. But Shamarko’s position is strong safety, and Golden is clearly ahead of him on the depth chat.

That gave Mike Mitchell the chance to talk with Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, and in doing so he praised the work of draft picks Artie Burns and Sean Davis, boasting of the interceptions notched by the secondary. His assessment also included phrases like, “I was happy with the overall group’s work today” and

I think when we played our best football we were definitely hitting people, we were jamming at the line of scrimmage, we had great communication and we played like a unit. That’s what I want to impart on the young guys so that way we can hit the ground running.

Assessments like that from someone like Mike Mitchell show just how far the secondary has come in such a short time. Less than three years ago, when then Tribune Review columnist Dejan Kovacevic wanted to take the temperature of a team trying to rebound from an 8-8 showing, he sought out “the souls of the franchise” Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu.

Kovacevic was right. Both men were such a fundamental part of the Steelers defense that most fans probably forget that it was Chris Hope, and not Clark, who started alongside Polamalu in Super Bowl XL.

  • But both men have begun their “Life’s work.”

So has Ike Taylor another leader from the defense, and another member of the secondary. Mike Mitchell’s comments give the impression that he is growing into a leadership role on the defense, which would be a welcome sight. During his first year, many fans wondered with the Steelers had stepped outside their comfort zone to make a “Splash free agency signing.” But Mitchell was injured, he quite frankly wasn’t prepared to play with Polamalu.

  • In 2015, Mitchell grew into the impact player the Steelers expected him to be.

Mitchell hauled down 3 interceptions, forced 2 fumbles and recovered two more – welcome sight on a defense suffering from a chronic turnover drought. To say that the Steelers secondary is “green” understates the fact. Other than Mitchell, only William Gay has double digit starts to his name. Ross Cockrell and Golden played well in 2015, but their sampling of work is limited. Senquez Golson, Artie Burns and Sean Davis have yet to play a snap in the NFL while Doran Grant’s snap count is measured in single digits.

Yes, Mike Mitchell’s emergence as a leader in the Steelers secondary would be a welcome occurrence.

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Panthers Bouncing Brandon Boykin Reinforces Fundamental Fact: Kevin Colbert Makes Good Decisions

Steelers OTA’s will bring a week of fresh news to Steelers Nation, as last week’s biggest “Steelers story” was the Carolina Panthers cutting Brandon Boykin less than two months after signing him to a one year $840,000 contract in favor of Shaquille Richardson.

  • Someday a college professor somewhere will write a paper about the role that the internet and social media play in sustaining Steelers Nation.

In the early ‘90’s a story like the Boykins, outside of Pittsburgh, would have merited maybe a line at two the “Transactions” column crammed at the back of a sports page. Don’t believe me? That’s how the Boston Globe treated the Panther’s decision to cut Barry Foster after the Steelers had traded him.

  • Today every Steelers site dutifully wrote their “Panthers cut former Steeler Brandon Boykin”  post
  • Steelers Nation simultaneously debated the decision on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat.

So be it. This isn’t a Watch Tower post, but rather one that shows how the Boykin story illustrates a basic point:

  • Kevin Colbert usually makes good personnel decisions.

Ah you say, but what about Dri Archer and Shamarko Thomas to name two recent, high profile draft day disappointments?

Fair enough. Kevin Colbert doubtlessly would like to have both draft picks back. But NFL drafting success is part art, part science and part blind luck. But when it comes to evaluating the talent on the Steelers roster, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are pretty good decision makers.

When Brandon Boykin signed with the Panthers, large swaths of Steelers Nation reacted as if the Steelers had just lost Rod Blount Boykin, to use a phrase coined by Dale Lolley. A case could be made for keeping Boykin, but he was no Rod Woodson or Mel Blount. Nor was he an Ike Taylor or even a Deshea Townsend.

  • Pittsburgh’s decision to go all in on Senquez Golson, Doran Grant and an unnamed draft pick (now Artie Burns) certainly carries risk for Steelers 2016 title hopes.

But now Ron Rivera and Dave Gettleman, two guys who just took their team to the Super Bowl, have made decided to trust in Shaquille Richardson over Brandon Boykin. Richardson, if you’ll remember, was the Steelers 2014 5th round draft pick who got cut in training camp and has yet to play a down of NFL football.

  • None of this should suggest that Kevin Colbert remains immune from making personnel mistakes.

That is hardly the case. The Steelers let Ryan Mundy go in 2013 and if his stat sheet is any guide, he’s had two solid seasons in New York and Chicago. That same off season, the Steelers gave up on Willie Colon due to his injury history and opted not to renew Doug Legursky’s contract. You’d better believe that when Maurkice Pouncey was lost for the year and Mike Adams couldn’t cut it at right tackle, Mike Tomlin wished he’d had either Colon or Legursky at his disposal

  • Keenan Lewis is another player the Steelers let get away in the 2013 off season that they wish they could have back.

But the decisions to let Mundy, Colon, Lewis and to some extent Legursky walk were as much or almost as much the result of salary cap restrictions as they were results of talent evaluations. That doesn’t exempt Colbert from criticism, because a general manager has to make those choices.

  • But outside of Lewis, Colon and Mundy, you’d be hard pressed to find someone the Steelers cut who thrived elsewhere.

What about Kraig Urbik?

Urbik is certainly one of the “ Ones that got away” from the Steelers 2009 draft class, but the Steelers wanted to keep Urbik, but were forced to expose him to the wavier wire because Byron Leftwich’s injury forced the Steelers to keep Charlie Batch on the roster during Ben Roethlisberger’s 2010 suspension. Urbik’s started 57 games for the Bills over the last six seasons, but the Steelers decision to keep Batch looked pretty smart when Dennis Dixon went down in week 2.

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin may miss on draft picks. They might overestimate the development potential of a player, such as Cortez Allen. They might trade for guys who disappoint, such as Levi Brown, Felix Jones or…. Brandon Boykin.

But when the Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin let a guy go, its not too often you’ll see the guy make a name for himself elsewhere.

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The Colbert Record: Steelers 4th Round Draft History Under Kevin Colbert

In its current incarnation, the 4th round represents balance point of the NFL Draft. Rounds 1-3 represent the cream of the crop. Rounds 5-7 represent the bottom feeders.

  • Round four falls squarely in between.

A fourth rounder maturing into a starter should surprise no one; yet a fourth rounder who only develops into a part-time role player cannot be written off as a bust. This year’s edition of The Colbert Record looks at Kevin Colbert’s history with 4th round picks.

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

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Steelers 2000 Fourth Round Pick – Danny Farmer

Wide receiver had been a weakness of the Steelers in 1998 and 1999. Based on the early returns, Troy Edwards had given the Steelers a foot hold on rectifying the problem, and the earlier pick of Plaxio Burress looked to improve the Steelers further. No one paid much attention to Hines Ward, so the pick of Danny Farmer seemed enticing.

  • At least until the Steelers opened camp at St. Vincent’s in Labrobe

Danny Famer couldn’t cut it, so Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert cut him. Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette decried the move, pointing the Farmer’s absence after the Steelers 16-0, 2000 opening day loss to the Ravens. Smizik doubled down in December (when the 2000 Steelers had turned around their season), extolling Farmer, by then a Cincinnati Bengal for a great game against Jacksonville.

Farmer, however was out of football by 2003, and never had more than 19 catches in a season. He didn’t do much for the Bengals, which is better than what the Steelers got from him. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2001 Fourth Round Pick – Mathias Nkwenti

Unlike wide recievers, there are few stats measure offensive lineman. But one stat that does stand out is this: Mathias Nkwenti appeared in two games for the Steelers one in 2001 and another in 2003. Then he was out of football. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2002 Fourth Round Pick – Larry Foote

If you were looking to define a prototype for a “quality 4th round pick” you’d need to look to Kevin Colbert’s 2002 4th round pick of Larry Foote.

When news broke that 2001’s rookie stand out Kendrell Bell was injured and wouldn’t be able to suit up for the opener, most Steelers fans figured that John Fiala would be the “Next man up.” Fiala wasn’t a superstar, but he’d paid his dues on special teams and as a backup since 1998, and sort of fit the Jerry Olsavsky mold.

  • Bill Cowher instead looked to the rookie Larry Foote to start.

Foote got the first three starts of the season, and while Bell kept him on the bench in 2003, Foote assumed the starting role in 2004 and started from that moment until the Steelers hoisted Lombardi Number Six over their heads after Super Bowl XLIII.

Foote of course departed in 2009, but was back in 2009 as a backup, only to reassume the starting role after James Farrior’s retirement. 105 regular season starts and 11 playoff starts including two Super Bowls is pretty impressive for a fourth round pick. Grade: Over Performer

Steelers 2003 Fourth Round Pick – Ike Taylor

If Larry Foote fulfilled all that can be expected of a 4th round pick, then 2003’s fourth round pick is an example of a 4th rounder who completely exceeds expectations. And to think, Mark Madden declared the pick of Ike Taylor as the worst pick in franchise history.

  • Something tells me that Mike Holmgrem and Matt Hasslebeck would beg to differ.

Ike Taylor won’t get recognition alongside the Jack Butler, Mel Blount and Rod Woodson as one of the franchise’s true great cornerbacks because he couldn’t hold on to interceptions. But from 2005 until 2012ish, Ike Taylor was able to shadow the opponents best receiver and often times take him out of the game. Grade: Grand Slam

Steelers 2004 Fourth Round Pick – Nathaniel Adibi

If Steelers lore is correct, a faction of the Steelers draft room wanted to use this pick on Michael Turner. Bill Cowher wanted Nathaniel Adibi. Unfortunately Cowher got his way. Nathaniel Adibi never played a down in a regular season NFL game, Michael Turner rushed for 7,338 yards in a 9 yard career. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2005 Fourth Round Pick – Fred Gibson

Just as he did in 2000, Kevin Colbert drafted wide receiver in the fourth round of the 2005 NFL Draft. Like Danny Farmer, Fred Gibson never played a down for the Steelers. Unlike Danny Farmer, Gibson never played anywhere in the NFL. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2006 Fourth Round Picks – Willie Colon and Orien Harris

Many times during Mike Tomlin’s early tenure, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette refered to a lack of alignment between the front office and the coaches on the offensive line, and looked to the Steelers seemingly bipolar treatment of Max Starks.

Bouchette might have had a point, but Steelers coaches were already angling to replace Max Starks with Willie Colon by the end of his rookie year. Colon did beat out Starks on the right side, and held down the fort there from 2007 to 2009. Injuries of course ruined his 2010 and 2011 season and derailed it in 2012 when he’d settled in at offensive guard. Grade: Quality Value Pick

Orien Harris, defensive tackle out of Miami was the Steelers second fourth round pick in 2004. He never played a down for the Steelers, but did appear in 18 games for the Bengals and Browns in the next three season. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2007 Fourth Round Picks — Daniel Sepulveda and Ryan McBean

The Mike Tomlin era began with two fourth round picks and it started with a bang, of sorts.
Mike Tomlin looked to make a statement with his first draft by trading up to get a punter to emphasize the importance of special teams. Daniel Sepulveda was the pick.

Sepulveda had two decent seasons punting, until injuries cost him the 2008 season. He injured himself again in 2010. To the surprise of many, the Steelers brought him back in 2011, but his last game was the Steelers All Saints day upset of the Patriots. It is not Sepulveda the Steelers picked him first, but if you pick a punter in the fourth round, he’d better be All World. Sepulveda wasn’t that even when healthy: Grade: Disappointment

The Steelers second 4th round pick was of Ryan McBean, a defensive tackle out of Oklahoma State. McBean played one game as a rookie in Pittsburgh during 2007 for the Steelers, and then 46 the three years afterwards including 21 starts. Unfortunately, McBean played his last four seasons for Denver and Baltimore. His stats indicate OK value for a 4th round pick, unfortunately, the Steelers didn’t benefit from any of that value. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2008 Fourth Round Pick – Tony Hills

As mentioned when profiling 2008’s 3rd round pick Bruce Davis, Jim Wexell wrote that Mike Tomlin would match Tony Hills and Bruce Davis together during training camp and extol both men on, saying, “I’m going to make a player out of one of you.”

  • Unfortunately, Tomlin was wrong about both men.

Davis was gone in a year. Tony Hills however, stuck around. However, he did not dress in 2008 nor did he suit up in 2009. Hills got a little bit of a reprise under 2010’s special teams coach Sean Kugler, and he actually saw action in four games. The Steelers experimented with him at guard during the 2011 preseason, but cut him.

Since then Tony Hills has stuck on with Denver, Indianapolis, Dallas, Miami and most recently in 2015 New Orleans, seeing spot duty (and one start) in 18 games. But when you draft a tackle in the 4th round, you really need more than four games in 3 seasons. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2009 Fourth Round Pick – Traded

The Steelers traded their 4th round pick along with their second to get Denver’s two 3rd round picks in the 2009 NFL Draft.

Steelers 2010 Fourth Round Pick – Thaddeus Gibson

The Steelers used their 2010 4th round pick on linebacker Thaddeus Gibson. The early reports on Gibson out of Latrobe were positive. However, when the Steelers needed to make a roster move in October, Gibson’s spot was sacrificed. San Francasico snapped him up, where he saw spot duty in two teams. He’d get spot duty in two more games the next season with the Bears, and then a roster spot sans the spot duty with the Titans. Gibson was out of football after that. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2011 Fourth Round Pick — Cortez Allen

Kevin Colbert certainly has had bigger 4th round disappointments than Cortez Allen (see 2012’s) and the same can be said for Art Rooney, Dick Haley and Tom Donahoe before him. But none have had a stranger trip than Cortez Allen.

The Steelers took Allen in the 4th round of the 2011 NFL Draft and as a rookie, Allen played a role in shutting down (or at least containing) the Patriots Rob Gronkowski in the 2011 Steelers upset of the Patriots. Word was that in 2012, Allen pushed Keenan Lewis hard for the starting slot. Lewis won, but when injures opened the door for Allen to start late in 2012, Allen responded with two interceptions and one forced fumble vs. the Bengals and then two forced fumbles in the season finale vs. the Browns.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers, it appeared, had found their cornerback.

Allen got injured in the Steelers season 2013 opener vs. the Titans (who didn’t get injured that day), and struggled when he returned to health. However, his pick six in the snow at Lambeau sealed the Steelers win over Green Bay.

  • That was the Cortez Allen the Steelers had been waiting for.

The Steelers went out on a limb, and resigned Cortez Allen to a 25 million dollar contract before the 2014 season. IT was a good deal for Allen. He pocketed just under 6.3 million for just 12 games. The Steelers of course have cut Allen and moved on. Grade: Disappointment

Steelers 2012 4th round pick – Alameda Ta’amu

By 2012 Casey Hampton was on his last legs and, while Steve McLendon was looking good, the Steelers still were not ready to anoit him as Hampton’s successor. So Kevin Colbert traded up to get the last pure nose tackle in the draft Alameda Ta’amu.

  • One of the ironies about the pick, was that David DeCastro’s highlight reel showed him manhandling Ta’amu earlier in the year.

That was worrisome, but not nearly as worrisome as Ta’Amu’s drunken rampage through the South Side that could have easily killed someone. To the chagrin of many, the Steelers kept him around, but eventually let him go. Ta’Amu landed in Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals, where he played in 21 games. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2013 4th round picks – Shamarko Thomas and Landry Jones

The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t trade future draft picks. It simply runs against the franchise’s philosophy. In 2013 the made an exception, however, and traded up to grab Shamarko Thomas, a safety out of Syracuse.

  • The word was that Shamarko would have gone 1st had he been 2 inches taller.

The Steelers put their money where their mouth was by working Shamarko into the slot early in the season. Shamarko got hurt, Will Allen returned, and after the Steelers 2013 debacle vs. New England, Shamarko’s snaps with the secondary can be counted in single digits (or almost.)

The Steelers haven’t give up on Shamarko yet, but at this point he’s doesn’t look to get off of special teams outside of an emergency. Grade: Bust

The Steelers surprised many when they drafted Landry Jones in the 4th round of 2014. Many speculated he was arriving as Ben Rothlisberger’s replacement. Instead, he replaced Charlie Batch. Landry Jones struggled in both the 2013 and 2014 preseasons, making fans long for the days when Brian St. Pierre held the clipboard.

  • The Steelers challenged Jones in 2015 at St. Vincent’s and Jones responded.

Landry Jones quite frankly still must prove he’s a competent number 2 NFL quarterback, but his off the bench performances vs. the Cardinals and the Raiders prove he’s a competent number 3 NFL quarterback. Grade: Serviceable Pick Up

Steelers 2014 4th Round Draft Pick – Martavis Bryant

When the Steelers turn comes to pick in the fourth round, it would be wise for Dan Rooney to veto any decision to pick a wide receiver…. As he did in 2000 and 2005, Kevin Colbert looked to build wide receiver depth in the 4th round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Unlike Danny Farmer and Fred Gibson, his pick, Martavis Bryant, has played in the NFL.

  • And unlike Farmer and Gibson, Bryant has shown he has transformational talent.

But Bryant is of course dogged by off the field substance abuse issues, and will miss his third season due to a suspension.

Please Mr. Colbert, do not draft any more wide receivers in the 4th round. Grade: Disappointment

Steelers 2015 4th Round Draft Pick – Doran Grant

When the Steelers cut Doran Grant to make room for some waiver wire pickups, Steelers Nation reacted as if Mel Taylor Woodson had been sent packing. The reaction was exaggerated as the Steelers resigned Grant to the practice squad, and then the active roster.

  • But Grant only had one snap in 3 games.

Normally one would caution that it is far, far too early to come to any conclusion on a 4th round pick after a rookie year, and it IS too early to give up on Doran Grant. But given Kevin Colbert’s track record here, one would like to see more encouraging results. Grade:  Farm Team

Kevin Colbert’s Record in the 4th Round

In his seven drafts with Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert had some bad misses with his fourth round picks, but he also found Larry Foote, Ike Taylor, and Willie Colon in the fourth round, and those men have 5 Super Bowl rings between them for games in which they started.

  • Unfortunately, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have been a disaster in the 4th round.

They’ve traded up three times and only have an oft-injured average punter, a nose tackle most famous for an off the field incident, and safety who was supposed to replace Troy Polamalu but can only seem to play on special teams. Cotez Allen flashed ability, but faded even more quickly. Martavis Bryant tantalizes, but his toking might cost him an NFL career.

Landry Jones has grown into a respectable player, but his late development in 2015 isn’t enough to compensate for all the other outright busts. Grade: D

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Steelers 2016 Draft Needs @ Cornerback – Pittsburgh Must Corner the Market

The Pittsburgh Steelers will enter the 2016 NFL Draft in need of a cornerback. The same could be said in 2015 and in 2014. It has been a recurring theme, with commentators tripping over themselves to remind fans that the Steelers haven’t drafted a cornerback in the first round since taking Chad Scott in 1997.

  • That’s the longest first round cornerback drought in the NFL, we’re reminded.

Is it neglect or a simple product of no viable corners remaining on the board when the Steelers turn has come to draft? That’s a question we can’t answer, but today we look at just how badly the Steelers need help at cornerback.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Entering the 2016 NFL Draft – the Starters

In William Gay the Pittsburgh Steelers have a proven starting NFL cornerback who has shown time and time again he can make opposing offenses pay when he gets the ball in his hands to the tune of five straight pick sixes between 2013 and 2015.

It was a move the Steelers wanted to make, it was also a move the Steelers had no choice to make. Penciled in opposite William Gay is Ross Cockrell, a player that Kevin Colbert picked up after the Buffalo Bills discarded him.

The Steelers could do worse than Cockrell as a starting cornerback, who had two interceptions in the 2015 regular season, one fumble recovery, followed by another in the playoffs against the Bengals. Still, Cockrell’s body of work is quite thin.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Cornerback Entering the 2016 NFL Draft – Backups

Behind William Gay and Ross Cockrell, the Steelers depth chart is led by a pair of draftees from the 2015 NFL Draft. The first is Senquez Golson the second is Doran Grant. Both men made news for the wrong reasons in the summer of 2015. Golson because he was injured, and Grant because he was cut, causing a minor firestorm in Steelers Nation.

Doran Grant returned via the practice squad and found himself on the 53 roster late in the season, where he logged all of one snap with the Steelers defense.

  • For those keeping notes at home, the Steelers also have 3 other cornerbacks on their roster.

The most notable is Isaiah Frey (no relation to Walder Frey of the Trident) who was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 2012, and has spent time on the practice squads and active rosters of both the Bears and the Buccaneers. He joined the Steelers practice squad in October 2015.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2016

The Steelers also have Al-Hajj Shabazz and Montell Garner who is simply listed as a a defensive back.

That’s a depth chart that would fail to scare a CFL offensive coordinator, let alone an NFL offensive coordinator.

Steelers 2016 Draft Need at Cornerback

Mike Tomlin is putting a lot of faith in Senquez Golson, and that’s a cause for worry. Steelers Nation can pray and hope that Golson lives up to his billing. Assuming that will happen as risky, as the case of Kris Farris showed so long ago.

  • Doran Grant obviously has some serviceable skills, and if he can work himself into a 4th or 5th corner in 2016 that will be a positive.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the Steelers need both quality and quantity at cornerback, and they must find that in the 2016 NFL Draft. Put simply the Steelers 2016 draft need at cornerback can only be considered as High. Very high.

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Steelers 2016 Draft Needs @ Safety – Does Safety or Cornerback Come First?

Secondary is a primary concern for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2016 NFL Draft.

  • But which part of the defensive backfield should take priority safety or cornerback?

Steelers Nation will need to wait until the Steelers 2016 Draft Needs Matrix is published for Steel Curtain Rising’s answer to that question, but today we’ll take a look at the Steelers 2016 draft needs at safety.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Safety Entering the 2016 NFL Draft – the Starter

The Steelers 2014 offseason began with Ryan Clark on his way out and Troy Polamalu entering the last summer of his NFL life and Kevin Colbert reacted with an uncharacteristic move big money free agent signing of Mike Mitchell.

  • Michael Mitchell failed to deliver much splash during his first year with the Steelers.

The word was that Mitchell was both unaccustomed to playing with Polamalu and that he was playing injured. A year ago that sounded like coaches talk, but in the time since then he’s recorded 3 interceptions, forced two fumbles and recovered two more. Mitchell also showed an ability to come up with big plays when the Steelers needed them.

In his four years in Pittsburgh, Golden is known more for his efforts as a special team’s captain, but he did see time in Dick LeBeau’s defense as a rookie in 2012. Golden was expected to push for time after that, but the push never emerged. However, in 2015 Golden’s number got called when injuries took Will Allen out of the lineup.

Golden responded with solid play, and later in the season came up with a crucial interception that helped propel the Steelers over the Bengals late in the season.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Safety Entering the 2016 NFL Draft – Backups

When I first sat down to analize the Steelers draft needs at safety, I asked myself “Does Pittsburgh have anyone else at Safety besides Mitchell and Golden….. They don’t….” Figuring the Steelers had signed a couple of three safeties to future’s contracts, I double checked Steelers.com.

  • Then I discovered the Steelers actually have two more safties under contract, and ones that Steelers fans will recognize.

The first is Shamarko Thomas, the second is Ross Ventrone. The Steelers once thought of Shamarko Thomas as Troy Polamalu’s heir apparent, thinking so much of him that they traded 2014’s 3rd round pick to move up to get Thomas in the 4th round of 2013 NFL Draft. When the pick was in, Carnell Lake explained that 2-3 inches were all that kept Shamarko from being a first round pick (note, he said the same thing about Senquez Golson….)

  • It is safe to say that Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, and Art Rooney II wish they had that one back.

The fact that Shamarko Thomas failed to start when he was supposed to is not particularly damming. But the fact that Steelers only played Shamarko Thomas in 20 defensive snaps – that’s less than Cortez Allen – shows how little confidence the team has in him.

Officially, Ross Ventrone is listed as a safety, but he did not log a single snap with the defense in 2015. For the record the Steelers also have Ray Vinpal at safety and Jordan Dangerfield. Dangerfield has spent time on the practice squad of the Buffalo Bills, and spent time on the Steelers practice squad in both 2014 and 2015.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2016

It has been rumored that Doran Grant could transition to safety in 2015.

Steelers 2016 Draft Need at Safety

The Steelers have one proven NFL safety, another one with potential, and a special teamer, and one draft day disappointment.

  • Which is to say, that the Pittsburgh Steelers have a glaring need at safety.

It is not inconceivable that the Steelers could find their starting safety on draft day, and that’s not something you want to say about a team that fancies itself as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Even if Robert Golden does meet expectations, the Steelers still need depth as they now have no one to step him.

Therefore the Steelers 2016 draft need at safety must be considered High.

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Steelers Begin 2016 Pre-Draft Visits with Jeremy Cash, Deon Bush, D.J. White and Jerald Hawkins

With the 2016 NFL Draft less than 1 month away, teams can begin entertaining hosting NCAA hopefuls for on-site visits. The Pittsburgh Steelers began the process this weekend, inviting four college players to their South Side facility on the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

The quartet of players included:

  • Jeremy Cash, Duke strong safety
  • Deon Bush, Miami free safety
  • D.J. White, cornerback Georgia Tech
  • Jerald Hawkins, offensive tackle, Louisiana State University aka “LSU”

That’s three defensive backs and one offensive lineman, for those of you taking notes at home. Last year fully 10 of the Steelers allotted 2015 pre-draft visits were from cornerbacks or safeties, and the Steelers ended up drafting Senquez Golson and Doran Grant out of that group. They also picked Jesse James and Sammie Coates, both of whom made pre-draft visits with the Steelers.

Who Are Cash, Bush, White and Hawkins?

Of the foursome, Jeremy Cash is the highest rated prospect, and the most likely to go early. While his college resume is impressive, he missed a Bowl game with a wrist injury and hamstring issued caused him to miss workouts at the NFL Combine. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reported, those medical concerns are likely a reason he’s been brought to Pittsburgh.

While it might seem blasphemous to write this, in College Cash played a hybrid like linebacker-safety position similar to what Troy Polamalu played during his career. The former ACC Defensive Player of the Year’s stat sheet is impressive, 332 tackles, 38 tackles-for-loss, nine forced fumbles, eight sacks and five fumble recoveries. However, Cash only intercepted five passes during his NCAA career and none came last season.

Deon Bush played for four years for the Miami Hurricanes who has solid measurable and nine career forced fumbles, 4 interceptions, 3 fumble recoveries, and 4 sacks.

D.J. White is seen as a later round prospect. While at Georgia Tech, the cornerback intercepted 7 passes, defended 21, forced 4 fumbles, and made 154 tackles. Jerald Hawkins stands at 6’6” weighs in at 305 pounds and boasts 34 and a quarter inch long arms.

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Steelers Free Agent Jordan Todman – The Last Free Agent Profiled, but Is He the Least?

Wavier wire pickups are normally ho-hum affairs. Then there’s Steelers free agent Jordan Todman. He’s special. Why? Because Kevin Colbert’s decision to pick up Todman off of waivers sparked a major emergency in Steelers Nation.

Yet in a few hours, Jordan Todman will be an NFL free agent, and yet there’s been barely a whimper out of Steelers Nation as to whether stays or goes….

Capsule Profile of Jordan Todman’s Career with the Steelers

September 7th, 2015 a day that will live in infamy for Steelers Nation….

…Unless it doesn’t. What the hell are we talking about? Well here’s a refresher. On September 6th, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert released the Steelers initial 53 man roster and the entire Steelers 2015 draft class made the team, save for 7th round safety Gerod Holliman. Then Pittsburgh’s South Side experienced its own Pearl Harbor….

  • Kevin Colbert found a running back he liked and signed him from the waiver wire.

The running back was Jordan Todman and his arrival in Pittsburgh meant the Steelers had to cut someone, who happened to be Doran Grant, the Steelers 4th round pick from 2015 NFL Draft. The crisis that ensued on Twitter and other social media channels leaves one to shudder to imagine what it would have been like had social media existed back in 1997, when Rod Woodson departed as a free agent……

  • Yet, after all the sound and fury, the Steelers added Todman to their backfield, and there he remained in relative anonymity.

Le’Veon Bell began the season suspended, DeAngelo Williams ran strong in his place, Bell got injured, Williams continued to pick up the slack, Dri Archer got cut, Williams continued to carry the Steelers running game on his 32 year old legs. It didn’t matter. Todman remained on the bench.

  • Mike Tomlin openly admitted that he wouldn’t risk the Steelers success by attempting to groom Todman or Fitzgerald Toussaint by giving them carries

Then of course came the Steelers regular season finale vs. Cleveland Browns, where DeAngelo Williams got hurt. The Steelers didn’t need to rush much to beat the Browns, but suddenly, the Steelers were down to their 4th and 5th running backs, and the playoffs were a week away….

Far from it. The Steelers handed the ball to Todman 11 times, and he gained 65 yards and generally ran the ball strong. In the playoff loss to Denver, Todman didn’t fare as well, but there’s a reason why Denver defense powered the Broncos to a Super Bowl victory.

The Case for Steelers Keeping Jordan Todman

The 2015 Cincinnati Bengals defense will not go down alongside the Four Horseman, Monsters of the Midway, or Purple People Eaters but they have the NFL’s 7th best rushing defense. While 11 carries does not a Merril Hoge’s vs. Denver inspirational performance make, getting 5.9 yards per carry in your first NFL playoff game is respectable.

Moreover, Todman has experience, having made over 100 carries before coming to Pittsburgh. The Steelers opened the season with a backfield that was two players deep in 2015 and it hurt them, Todman shows that he can be a viable insurance policy.

The Case Against Steelers Keeping Jordan Todman

Steel City Insider’s Matt Steel has the knock on Jordan Todman, explaining:

Just about every time Todman entered the game during the playoffs, teams would know he was going to run because they couldn’t put him in a position to pass-block. Todman put up great rushing numbers with his touches but the staff doesn’t trust him to block, and rightfully so.

Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Sammie Coates look to give Ben Roethlisberger and incredible arsenal of weapons in 2016. But if there’s one thing that the Steelers offense could not, and should not allowed to become it is one dimensional.

  • And when a player, by default, telegraphs whether it’s a pass or running play, your offense is one dimensional.

This would be true under normal circumstances, but Heath Miller’s retirement heightens the importance, because Heath Miller caught the ball 72% of the times it was thrown to him, making him an incredibly reliable target regardless of the situation. Nothing personal Mr. Todman, this is a business decision.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Jordan Todman

Jordan Todman’s performance in the playoffs vs. Cincinnati confirms that Kevin Colbert gamble of exposing a 4th round pick to the waiver wire to sign him was a wise one. But Matt Steel’s point is also quite valid.

  • The Steelers are in a good position with Todman.

No other NFL team is going to rush to sign him this afternoon when he can officially join another team. Nor is Todman going to come in the second wave of free agent signings.

  • There are some NFL free agents that teams can wait to sign, usually up until or even after the draft.

That’s the category that Todman fits into. The Steelers have the luxury of looking around the league for someone else to challenge Fitzgerald Toussaint for the 3rd string running back slot. They can even consider drafting someone. And if neither of these two things work out, there is a strong chance Todman will still be looking for a job in late spring or early summer.

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

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