With the Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 season in the books, we will shift our attention to the off-season. We will review each position group for the Steelers, and look into how it may change going from 2016 to 2017. For this edition, we will look at the cornerbacks.
Pittsburgh Steelers Positional Overview: Cornerback
The Steelers started the year with William Gay and Ross Cockrell starting at cornerback, but many expected first-round draft pick, Artie Burns, to get the starting job at some point. However, many fans thought that Burns would be replacing Cockrell. Cockrell had some struggles in 2015 and Gay seemed to take control of the number one cornerback position.
As 2016 went on though, it became clear that Cockrell had improved drastically and Gay had lost a step. By the end of the year, Cockrell had become the number one cornerback with Burns taking the other starting position. Gay seemed to find his place as the nickel cornerback and finished the year in that position.
Gay ended the year with the same amount of tackles that he had in 2015: 58. Cockrell finished the season with 62 tackles, a nice improvement from his total of 44 in 2015. Burns totaled 65 tackles in his first season as a Steeler. Although Cockrell didn’t record any interceptions, he was consistently covering the top wide receiver on the opposing team. Cockrell shut down A.J. Green when the Steelers played the Cincinnati Bengals, and he was constantly making huge plays in the red zone. Burns led the team in interceptions with three, tying him with linebacker Ryan Shazier. Gay added another interception of his own.
The Steelers finished in the middle of the pack in passing defense, ranking 16th and giving up 242.6 passing yards per game. The Steelers also ranked third in the NFL in completions of 20 yards or more allowed. This shows that while they may be allowing a decent amount of passing yards, they’re limiting opponents to shorter passes. The exceptional tackling by the Steelers cornerbacks helps make this happen.
In 2017, it looks like Burns and Cockrell (currently a restricted free agent) will again be the starting cornerbacks with Gay reprising his role as the nickel cornerback. While the nickel cornerback is technically the third cornerback on the depth chart, the position is equally as important as the outside cornerback positions.
Gay fits into the nickel role well because of his experience and ability to read the quarterback and jump routes. While he may have lost a step in the speed department, he continues to gain knowledge and experience. The team acquired former Cleveland Browns cornerback Justin Gilbert last year, but it’s unlikely that he’ll return on the roster after not making much of an impact last year.
Burns made huge improvements over his rookie season last year and is expected to continue to get better. While he was described as raw when he entered the draft last year, it’s clear that the Steelers knew what they were doing when they selected him in the first round. Cockrell also improved drastically last season and with both starting cornerbacks looking to be on a major upswing, expect the Steelers secondary to be underrated and overlooked next season.
The Steelers were rumored to have been interested in several cornerbacks this off-season, but have yet to sign any. First it was Darrelle Revis expressing interest in returning to Pittsburgh and playing for the Steelers, but since his arrest he has lost interest from NFL teams. Then, the Steelers were rumored to be in the mix for Stephon Gilmore, but he decided to sign with the defending champions, the New England Patriots. After that, the team met with former Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback, Davon House, but again didn’t sign him, as he would ultimately join the Green Bay Packers.
Expect the Steelers to draft at least one cornerback, but probably two. The team met with six cornerbacks at the NFL Combine, but none of them will likely be their first selection. The top talented cornerbacks that met with the Steelers are Cam Sutton from Tennessee, Desmond King from Iowa and Tre’Davious White from LSU. All three of those players could be taken in the first two rounds, but it’s more likely that they’re second or third round targets for the Steelers.
White is a tremendous athlete, who returned kickoffs and punts for LSU, and would be a dynamic addition to the Steelers secondary. King is a Jim Thorpe Award winner and a natural leader, who shows exceptional intelligence and play-recognition. Sutton has great size and strength and is a playmaker, who constantly seems to be around the ball. The Steelers also met with Marquez White from Florida State, Nate Hairston from Temple and Shaquill Griffin from USF.