On September 5th, 2015, just 5 days before the season opener at New England, the Steelers signed cornerback Ross Cockrell who would see significant defensive snaps throughout the season and will be a week 1 starter this season.
That is really the best outcome you could hope for as a fan for a guy added so late in the off-season.
The Steelers needs to hope that lightning can strike twice (or more) this off-season. Mike Tomlin’s 2016 roster is definitely talented, but due to some bad luck has more serious holes than I can remember there being this close to the season opener in some time.
The two positions I’m really concerned about are at tight end and cornerback.
At the tight end position, it’s looking more and more likely that whether it’s from a head injury or ankle injury as Mike Tomlin continues to say, that Ladarius Green is not anywhere close to helping this team and may not ever be. Maybe it’s the team doctor’s fault, maybe Green hid symptoms… none of that really matters now, all that matters is that the team thought they addressed the tight end position and now look dangerously thin.
Let me preface this by saying I like Jesse James. I correctly mocked James to the Steeler last year and thought he was a nice pick on day 3 of the draft… but I like Jesse James as a 2nd option at the tight end position. He’s not a great blocker, he’s not a great receiver, but he is a nice red-zone option that can do a little bit of everything at an okay level. That is not who you want manning the spot held by Heath Miller for the past decade.
Behind him it doesn’t get much better. Xavier Grimble is a moderately athletic receiving option that can’t be trusted as a blocker, and David Johnson is a nice veteran to have play a handful of snaps each week.
Grimble is the guy that we all need to keep our fingers crossed on. James and Johnson are just guys that aren’t all that athletic, and probably aren’t going to improve a whole lot at this point. Grimble is a guy with a lot of potential that he needs to tap into.
At cornerback, it’s more of the same with injuries making this part of the roster dangerously thin. I recently started trying to put together what I felt would be the final 53 man roster, and I saw 2 openings at the cornerback position with nobody I felt good about putting there.
If we assume that Sean Davis is a safety on the depth chart, along with Mitchell, Golden, and Shamarko… that leaves only 2 cornerbacks I trust on the roster; Ross Cockrell and William Gay. It looks like Davis will be manning the slot, so maybe they keep an extra safety, and Burns will be on the depth chart as well but due to injuries he’s not likely to see the field on defense for quite some time.
If Cockrell, Gay, and Burns are your only cornerbacks on the roster then I think there are 2 spots open. The options to fill those are Doran Grant, Donald Washington, Montell Garner, Kevin White, and Al-Hajj Shabazz. Grant is probably the most likely to take a spot, but even I think he’s on shaky ground right now despite a solid first preseason game. We’re an injury away from one of the above names being a starter, and that’s scary.
Personally, I’d really like to see a veteran outside cornerback added. I think that this defense would be a lot better off with William Gay in the slot, pushing the rookie Davis onto the bench and allow him to get some snaps all over the field rather than handing him the slot duties completely right away. Antonio Cromartie is a guy I think could help, but is probably unlikely given the way the Steelers like their cornerbacks to be able to tackle.
I did see a report last week that Steelers scouts were on-hand for the Jaguars/Jets preseason game last week. If I had to guess, the team will definitely put in some waiver claims as cuts start happening, the question becomes how big of an impact will those guys make?
If the team could find another Ross Cockrell, it would go a long way in improving their hopes of reaching the Superbowl this season. If not, they’re going to need someone like Artie Burns or Xavier Grimble to make a huge jump very quickly.