For the better part of the past decade, the Steelers had a need to upgrade at cornerback. But often times, they found themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place, picking in the bottom half of the first round of the NFL draft.
Seemingly every year, there would be a run on corners in the first round that would siphon off the top talent before the Steelers' selection would come up, leaving Pittsburgh to pick from the second and even third-tier corners that included the likes of Joe Burnett, Crezdon Butler, Curtis Brown, Cortez Allen, Terry Hawthorne, Shaquille Richardson, Doran Grant and Senquez Golson.
That's a lot of misses at the cornerback position, but to be fair, other than Golson, all of the others were taken in the third round or later. And Golson flamed out because of a couple of freak injuries that never allowed him onto the field.
That's not to say there haven't been some hits. William Gay was taken in the fifth round of the 2007 draft — Mike Tomlin's first year — and spent a decade roaming the team's secondary before the team released him prior to the start of free agency this year. And Keenan Lewis, a third-round pick in 2009, finally figured things out in his fourth season — just in time to hit the free agent market.
After signing Joe Haden prior to the start of last year and pairing him with 2016 first-round draft pick Artie Burns, the Steelers feel good about their two starting corners. And with the emergence of nickel corner Mike Hilton to go along with the selection of promising Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen in the third and fifth rounds, respectively, in last year's draft, the team also feels good about its cornerback depth this year. Add in veteran Coty Sensabaugh, signed as a free agent last year, and the Steelers have six corners they feel are of NFL caliber.
For a team that typically only keeps that many corners — at most — on its roster, there wouldn't seem to be a need for another cornerback. But with the Steelers' need at safety, the team has discussed the possibility of moving Sutton there, something that would likely become a reality if a top corner prospect fell into its lap in the first round of this year's draft, which will be held April 26-28.
The irony is there just might be a highly ranked cornerback or two that fall to the Steelers when they make their first selection at pick 28 in the first round.
While Ohio State's Denzel Ward is considered the top pure cornerback available, defensive backs Derwin James and Minkah Fitzpatrick, who should be selected in the top 10 picks, both have the flexibility in their games to play corner or safety.
But after those three, there's no true consensus about the next three or four cornerbacks and what order they will be selected. It will largely depend on what individual teams are looking for. And there's a variety of sizes and skillsets.
Want a bigger corner capable of playing press man coverage? Auburn's Carlton Davis or Isaiah Oliver of Colorado would fit the bill.
How about a smaller, quicker corner? Jaire Alexander of Louisville or Mike Hughes of Central Florida both have excellent speed and agility despite being 5-10.
Want a ballhawk? Iowa's Joshua Jackson picked off eight passes and deflected 18 others in 2017 despite a 40 time that is just in the 4.5s.
Jackson, who was just a one-year starter at Iowa — though he played nickel the previous two years — feels like his playmaking ability separates him from the others in the upper tier. He feels he is the best corner in this draft.
"I believe so," he said when asked that question at the NFL Scouting Combine. "I’m a playmaker. Whatever team I go to, they’re going to be able to rely on me to be accountable. I’m a playmaker."
Any or all of those cornerbacks could be selected in the first round of the draft. And there's a good chance one or two could be available when the Steelers pick.
Here are my top 10 cornerbacks available in this draft:
- Minkah Fitzpatrick, 6-0, 204, Alabama*
- Denzel Ward, 5-10, 191, Ohio State
- Jaire Alexander, 5-10, 196, Louisville
- Mike Hughes, 5-10, 189, Central Florida
- Isaiah Oliver, 6-0, 201, Colorado
- Josh Jackson, 6-0, 196, Iowa
- Carlton Davis, 6-1, 206, Auburn
- Donte Jackson, 5-10, 172, LSU
- Quenton Meeks, 6-1, 209, Stanford
- M.J. Stewart, 5-11, 200, North Carolina
*Also a safety prospect
All of those corners should be off the board by the end of the second round, showing how much depth there is at the position.
If the Steelers are looking for help or depth in the middle rounds, a couple of local products might get their interest.
Avonte Maddox of Pitt and Christian Campbell of Penn State are both mid-round prospects who have the kind of skillset that would interest the Steelers.
Maddox (5-9, 184) is a bit undersized, but competes hard, even against bigger receivers. And he showed his toughness last season when he missed just a few games after suffering a fractured forearm.
Maddox surprisingly ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at the combine and could be a demon on special teams, but his size limits him to being a slot-type corner.
Campbell, meanwhile, has much better size at 6-1, 196, and ran in the mid-4.5s at his pro day, where he also showed off a 41-inch vertical jump. But his game tape didn't always show that athleticism and many scouts think teammate Grant Haley is a better pro prospect despite Haley not being invited to the combine.
The Steelers also could have an interest in Florida's Duke Dawson, a speedy, 5-10, 206-pound slot-type corner.
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