Once the NFL season ends for a franchise, one can reflect on what went right and wrong. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, a significant portion of what went amiss was contained firmly in the defensive secondary.
The 2014 NFL draft will be here before we realize it and cornerback has taken top priority among the positions of need for this roster. Whether it is age, contracts or just poor play, there is plenty of blame to pass around.
Looking at the current players under contract for the Pittsburgh Steelers, here’s what the cornerback situation looks like.
Taylor is the senior member of the secondary. Taylor is a 33-year-old, 11-year veteran. He has been a staple at cornerback for over a decade and a point of stability for the franchise.
For the first half of the 2013 season, it appeared he’d remain that fixed point. Unfortunately, as the season progressed, Taylor’s play fell off severely. He struggled in his assignments and had lapses that cost this team dearly.
Pair this up with a massive salary cap hit of $11.94 million and there is a distinct possibility that he won’t be on the roster in 2014.
If there is a bright spot in all this, it could be that Allen is healthy and ready to be the cornerback he flashed the potential to be at the end of 2012 and in parts of 2013.
Allen is far and away the Steelers' best hope currently on the team for a shutdown cornerback. The Steelers should strongly consider a contract extension for Allen this offseason before his market value rises to a point where he can’t be retained.
Gay was brought back into the fold after a short stint with the Arizona Cardinals. For the most part, Gay filled in admirably as a nickel cornerback and at times a starter. However, his ceiling is limited and he’s close to 30, so you can’t really look at him as a long-term answer opposite Allen.
All the Rest
The Steelers have or will have the following cornerbacks on the roster as well:
- Curtis Brown
- Antwon Blake
- Isaiah Green
While it is not out of the realm of possibility that one or more of these players could step up for the Steelers in 2014, it’s not a bet worth hedging.
How important to the Steelers is a new cornerback in the 2014 NFL draft?
This lack of depth means the Steelers must look at adding at least one starter-quality cornerback. This could be accomplished via free agency or the NFL draft. Even in a best-case scenario, this team may not have the salary-cap space to sign a cornerback like Brent Grimes, so it will be up to the draft.
Here are three prospects that the Steelers should target:
- Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
- Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech
- Pierre Desir, Lindenwood
All of these cornerbacks share some common characteristics, which the Steelers’ coaches should find quite appealing. All three are over 6’0” tall and solid at or over 200 pounds.
They also have exceptional ball skills. They use their eyes well to follow the quarterback and track the football in the air. Their ability to play man coverage gives the Steelers the flexibility to line them up against opponents’ best wide receivers and know that those assignments are in capable hands.
Gilbert is battle-tested in the Big 12 against some of the most explosive offenses in all of college football. He never lets up on a play and has a very short memory for bad plays. This really is an underrated skill for cornerbacks.
Fuller might have been the top cornerback in this draft if he hadn’t battled some nagging injuries for much of the season. He might be the best all-around athlete of the three and, when he is healthy, uses his athleticism and length to blanket wide receivers.
Desir might be the most unknown of the three, but make no mistake: Just because he played at Division II Lindenwood doesn’t mean he can’t play with the big boys.
During the course of the season, most teams simply chose to pick their poison and not even throw at Desir. When they did, he rarely gave up a catch.
The Steelers could do much worse than to add any of these cornerbacks. Any of them paired up with Allen, allowing Gay to stay as the nickel corner, would be a nice start toward making this defensive secondary young and more athletic in a hurry.