The return of Joe Haden makes for a crowded cornerback situation for the Steelers, not that it's a bad thing.
With Haden out, veteran Coty Sensabaugh and rookie Cameron Sutton both got playing time they weren't going to get had Haden stayed healthy. With the emergence of Mike Hilton, Sensabaugh, primarily a slot corner, didn't have a role early in the season. Sutton, a third-round draft pick, lost his chance at seeing playing time this season when he got hurt in training camp.
Had Haden not suffered a fractured fibula last month, there was a good chance Sutton wouldn't have even been activated off of injured reserve. But the Steelers liked what they saw of Sutton in a full game last week against New England and now feel that position will not be one of need -- for the first time in a long time -- in the offseason.
Haden, Hilton, Sutton, Sensabaugh, Artie Burns, rookie Brian Allen and William Gay are all under contract next season. That's seven cornerbacks and the Steelers are unlikely to keep seven.
They might not even keep seven beyond this weekend, when they have to release someone to make room for Marcus Gilbert on the active roster. It will likely come down to Sensabaugh or defensive tackle Daniel McCullers being released to make room for Gilbert.
• The Steelers were confident they could beat the Patriots heading into last weekend's game. Now, after playing them, even though they lost, they are even more confident in their ability to do so. With Haden, Gilbert and Vance McDonald coming back and, presumably, a healthy Antonio Brown for an entire game against them, more than one player told me they feel they are a better team than New England. The Steelers feel even though they didn't actually win last Sunday's game technically, they showed they can do it. That wasn't the feeling they had after getting dismantled in last year's AFC Championship. -- Dale Lolley
• Given time to cool down, the coaching staff wasn't as upset with Jesse James' touchdown being overturned as it was with James not simply catching the ball cleanly. As one coach told me, there was no reason for James to go to the ground in the first place in that situation. That said, nobody was faulting James for trying to make a play. -- Lolley
• Don't be surprised to see Keith Butler cut Bud Dupree loose a little more these next couple of games. Dupree himself seemed surprised at how often he was allowed to pursue Tom Brady -- and he was highly effective -- so the coaching staff has plenty to gain in finding out how he fares with his ears pinned back. -- Dejan Kovacevic
• It's increasingly looking like a given that Ian Cole not only won't be back next year, he probably won't make it through the entire season here in Pittsburgh before being dealt. Patric Hörnqvist will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, too, but he's not going to be traded unless the Penguins lose 20 in a row. However, there's been little to indicate Hörnqvist, 30, and the team are making any progress toward a contract extension. Something to monitor as the new year approaches. -- Matt Gajtka
• The Penguins may have won back-to-back Stanley Cups, but they're just as susceptible to the ups and downs of a season as most teams. While they haven't been getting dominated in any of their recent losses, any time I've brought up that fact to the players, they are quick to say -- both on and off the record -- how they've let those games get away. I don't know if I'd say their confidence is lacking, but there's a real sense of building frustration that they've scored so little so far. -- Gajtka
• Some interesting prospect news this week: Clayton Phillips, the undersized-yet-offensively-gifted defenseman the Penguins selected in the third round of last summer's NHL Draft, has enrolled at the University of Minnesota. The 18-year-old said at development camp in June that the plan was for him to play a second season in the junior-level United States Hockey League before joining the Gophers in 2018-19. Instead, with Minnesota struggling, Phillips could see Division I NCAA ice time this season. After scoring 12 points (five goals) in 16 USHL games this season, maybe it was time to move up anyway, but he's likely to play less as a freshman than he would as a second-year in juniors. Of course, Phillips isn't under contract with the Penguins yet, so they can't make suggestions while he's still an amateur. -- Gajtka
• The Penguins could use some fresh legs and this might seem counterproductive to that, but know what else the Penguins are missing? How about a sage, savvy veteran? Currently, the Penguins' oldest player is 32-year-old Matt Hunwick. The other "greybeards" (who don't yet have grey), include 31-year-olds Patric Hornqvist, Evgeni Malkin and Ryan Reaves. Sidney Crosby, no longer "Sid the Kid," is the fifth-oldest player on the roster (man, now I feel old). Perhaps what the Penguins could use is an elder statesmen in the dressing room to serve as a sounding board and who can impart nuggets of wisdom. Matt Cullen had been that older brother figure on the last two Cup teams and, before that, it was Billy Guerin in 2009. That's not to suggest that the Penguins should bring back Cullen, who was recently a healthy scratch in Minnesota, but perhaps someone like him. Look at what Patrick Marleau has meant to a young Toronto team. An older player who hasn't won before is also a very motivated player. -- Chris Bradford
• Gerrit Cole isn’t going to the Yankees unless they send at least two of their top five prospects to the Pirates, including Clint Frazier. Neal Huntington has all the leverage here. Cole is under contract for two more seasons, so a trade at the deadline in July would also bring a significant return. Huntington can set the price high and see if anyone matches. — Lance Lysowski
• Cole grew up a Yankees fan, and he'd surely embrace wearing pinstripes. But don't presume that to mean he'd want out of Pittsburgh. He's as straight a shooter as there is in that clubhouse, and he's still never spoken an ill word about management, no matter how badly they've bungled something. He also was passionate about batterymate Chris Stewart, though Stewart won't be with the club in 2018. -- DK
• It’s going to take a Herculean effort this spring for José Osuna to make the 25-man roster. Sure, all reports indicate Osuna fared well at third base during his 22 games in the Venezuela Winter League and his 17-game hitting streak for Bravos de Margarita broke a club record, but Huntington doesn’t seem convinced that Osuna will be ready to play third for the Pirates. – Lysowski
• To acquire more assets in the trade, the Pirates could include Josh Harrison. The Yankees have holes at second and third base. Harrison can play second base until Gleyber Torres is ready or serve as a cheaper option than some of the free-agent third basemen. — Lysowski
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