With less than a week remaining until the NFL Draft, we are wrapping up our position-by-position look at the Steelers roster and where the team has the biggest needs. Despite winning the AFC North Crown and finishing an over-ruled catch (that is now a catch) away from being the #1 seed in the AFC, the Steelers have plenty of needs to address on their current roster. While some believe the Steelers need to focus exclusively on defense in the upcoming Draft, the team has generally split their draft picks between offense and defense. The Steelers will have 7 picks in the draft with no picks in the 4th or 6th round but with 2 picks in the 5th and 7th rounds. Today’s preview will cover cornerbacks, which was also covered on Episode 68 of the Steel City Blitz podcast (along with O-Line and Safeties).
Also check out our Prospect Profiles.
By The Numbers
2017 Sacks: 5
2017 Forced Fumbles: 3
2017 INTs: 6
2017 Passes Defended: 33
Returning Players: Artie Burns, Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton, Coty Sensabaugh, Brian Allen, Antonio Crawford, Dashaun Phillips (PS)
New Arrivals: None
The Departed: William Gay
Draft Need: Medium
Artie Burns has two years remaining on his rookie contract (along with a potential 5th year option) and is likely entering a make-or-break season. Joe Haden carries a cap hit of nearly $12 million but was the Steelers best cornerback last season. Haden also has 2 years left on his contract and will be 29 this season. Mike Hilton was a great find as an undrafted free agent and was a very solid slot corner who brought a blitzing element to the Steelers secondary last year. Coty Sensabaugh can be cut at any time and save the Steelers $1.4 million in cap space, which makes it somewhat surprising he is still on the roster. Cam Sutton played well in limited action last year while Brian Allen was strong on special teams but is still raw at the cornerback position. After Joe Haden’s injury last season, the Steelers secondary took a step back with Sensabaugh in the lineup. Sensabaugh lost his starting job at halftime against the Bengals and was replaced by Cam Sutton.
Likelihood of Drafting: Medium
Given that the Steelers play a nickel defense at least 70% of the time, we should think of 3 corners as “starters.” I am firmly of the opinion that a team should pick a corner in every draft because you can simply never have enough of them. Sutton figures to be the top backup at both the slot and outside corner spots while Allen figures to be a core special-teamer. The spot to upgrade is Sensabaugh, who carries a decent cap hit and was not good last season. It would make sense for the Steelers to consider a corner, and if they take one early it could help ease the transition from Joe Haden (or Artie Burns, if he fails to develop).
Potential Prospects: As many as 4 corners could go in the first round of the Draft, but there is not a consensus on which player will go first. Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick played as both a corner and safety for the Crimson Tide and there are differing opinions on what his most effective position in the NFL will be (we consider him a safety). Ohio State’s Denzel Ward has a lot of Jason Verrett in his game and seems to be a certain Top 15 pick. Louisville’s Jaire Alexander and Iowa’s Josh Jackson are both first round talents with Alexander the shorter, speedier player who probably fits better in a man scheme and Jackson the taller, more physical player who may be better in zone. Central Florida’s Mike Hughes could also sneak into the back end of the first round.
The Steelers spent time with a number of Day 2 cornerback prospects during the draft season. Notably, two pre-draft visitors were Florida’s Duke Dawson (READ: Visit Summary) and North Carolina’s MJ Stewart (READ: Visit Summary). Both Dawson and Stewart are physical slot corners who are strong tacklers. Stewart balled out at the Senior Bowl and both profile as Day 2 prospects (probably in Round 3). Other Day 2 prospects that the Steelers have spent time with include LSU’s Donte Jackson, who is a bit undersized (5’10” 178 lbs) but ran a blazing fast 4.32 40-yard dash, and Auburn’s Carlton Davis who is at the other end of the spectrum at 6’1″ 206 lbs and ran a 4.53.
If the Steelers don’t land any of those players on Day 2, keep an eye out for potential Day 3 additions from small schools such as Weber State’s Taron Johnson, Central Arkansas’ Tremon Smith, and Western Michigan’s Darius Phillips (READ: SCB Prospect Profile). This is a fairly deep draft at cornerback and there will be plenty of players in the 2nd and 3rd rounds who can be NFL starters. Since most teams now should consider 3 cornerbacks as defensive starters, this is a position that will continue to see increased demand.