Football is coming. Training camp is right around the corner, and from there, the rush of the NFL for the next six months will consume us all. Of course, there is still a difference between the start of training camp and the kick off of the NFL season. To get us through that time there are training camp competitions worth looking into. This series will highlight the five best training camp battles that will go on this summer at St. Vincent. Today, we look at the slot position on the defensive side of the ball. This is a four-way battle between William Gay, Senquez Golson, Coty Sensabaugh and Cameron Sutton. What is the case for and against each player?
Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Battles: Slot Cornerback
The last time the Steelers took the field it was William Gay playing in the slot. During the first couple of weeks of the season, Gay played on the outside until first round pick Artie Burns finally proved ready. Burns took over the job and pushed Gay to the slot. Last season, Gay thrived in that position. In fact, from week five he gave up the least number of yards per route run on him.
One of the big reasons that Gay had such a good standing in coverage was that teams were going all-in to attack the rookie, Burns. Burns was very raw last season and most offensive coordinators saw him as the player to attack in the secondary. It kept the pressure off of Gay. A step forward, and hopefully a big one is expected to come from Burns this season. It should mean more pressure on Ross Cockrell and Gay. On top of that, Gay is now 31 years old. The team hoped to replace him with Golson a few years ago but couldn’t. Now, they signed Sensabaugh and drafted Sutton. It is clear the Steelers know that long term they have to move on, and for them the sooner they find the replacement and can get him on the field the better.
Golson, a former second round pick has the most pedigree of the group. He has 16 career interceptions in college and 10 came during his last season at Ole Miss. Golson is smaller, standing at 5’8”, but plays a lot bigger than his size when it comes to ball tracking and athleticism. The team had anticipated a role for him for the past two seasons, and it could be a better late than never situation in 2017.
Golson has not stepped on a football field in two years. His first injury was before training camp opened and required season ending surgery. Many anticipated this was his small frame taking a bad beating in the SEC. How will that shoulder hold up in the NFL? The very next season, early into camp Golson went down with a foot injury that required Lisfranc surgery. There is no doubt about, footwork is the most important factor of playing cornerback. For a player of Golson’s size, if he is not quick and agile with his feet off of the line, he is going nowhere. These are serious injuries that absolutely have affected his growth, development, and ceiling. All of the sudden Golson does not look worth the risk.
The Steelers signed Sensabaugh this off-season. This is not a team who signs a player to cut him in the off-season. The Steelers have signed 65 players before the draft in the Kevin Colbert era. Only four did not suit up for at least one game in black and gold. When they extend an offer sheet, there is a plan for you to be used. Sensabaugh is the second most experienced of the group but is four years younger than Gay. He could very easily be the replacement to Gay for the next four seasons as well.
For a player that the Steelers want to keep around, he bounced around last season to two different teams. Of course, one was the Rams, who drastically overpaid him and assumed he would manage on the outside. Still, the other was the Giants, who only brought him in for insurance purposes, as small injuries shook up the lineup throughout the year. Sensabaugh put in 114 snaps over 10 games for the Giants. His upside is lower than Golson and Sutton and his familiarity with the other corners and in the defense is lower than Gay’s.
Sutton is a four-year starter and team captain from Tennessee. After the 2015 season, it was speculated Sutton could go as high as round one. Sutton played the entire 2016 season with a fractured ankle and still looked like a solid cornerback in the SEC. He is signed on the longest, is the youngest and now should be the one the Steelers are rooting for to take the job.
Sutton has never played in the slot. Being below 6’ in the NFL these days does not give you a great chance to survive on the outside. Still, a 5’10”, that is where Sutton made his paper in college football. If he switches to the slot, it will take away a lot of his experience and his spacial awareness will have to be altered. This is not the easiest process.
If things break right, it would likely be Sutton earning the job. Given his inexperience at the role, expect the Steelers to take a route similar to Artie Burns with Sutton. It will be extremely similar because it should be Gay holding down that job for the first stretch of the season. Still, Gay should have a short leash, and after a few games could be pushed to the bench in the same way he was pushed to the slot last season. Expect Sutton to win the slot job, if not in training camp, by the end of the season.