Pittsburgh Steelers: 2011 NFL Free-Agent Cornerbacks That Could Be Steelers

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Pittsburgh Steelers: 2011 NFL Free-Agent Cornerbacks That Could Be Steelers
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The Pittsburgh Steelers are going to face an interesting situation when attempting to resign big name free agent Ike Taylor. Last year the Achilles' heel for the Steelers was their pass defense. Despite having one of the NFL’s best defenses, the Steelers' secondary was exposed near the end of the season and cost them the Super Bowl.

No one in the Steelers organization will question Taylor’s significance to the Steelers’ defensive success. However, will they pay the big bucks to keep Ike Taylor ?

Since the Steelers employed defensive coordinator Dick Labeau for the second time in 2004, they've had one of the NFL’s best defenses. Only twice in Labeau’s seven seasons with Pittsburgh has the unit not ended the season as one of the top-four defensive teams, statistically. In the two years the Steelers weren’t ranked in the top four (2006 & 2009), their rankings were 11th and 13th.

Taylor has been a starter six of Labeau’s seven years as defensive coordinator and has found some success at the position. Despite never posting more than three interceptions in a season and never making a Pro Bowl, Taylor has been a solid contributor for the Steelers in his career.

Over the span of Labeau’s tenure with Pittsburgh, it is easy to see what positions are most important to the team’s 3-4 scheme. Undoubtedly, the Steelers’ defensive success has been directly tied to two positions while under Labeau’s watch.

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Labeau has had the benefit of having great players on his side. The Steelers have had more production out of the starting right outside linebacker in his time than at any other position.

Joey Porter started the trend with Labeau, averaging over eight sacks per season and two interceptions and forced fumbles per season. Then the position was taken to new heights when James Harrison took over as the full-time starter. Harrison averaged 30 more solo tackles, three more sacks and almost four more forced fumbles.

The dominant outside linebacker for the Steelers is responsible for over 25 percent of the tackles recorded by the starting linebackers. However, the most glaring statistic tied to the position is turnovers and sacks.

Of all four starting linebackers, the ROLB is responsible for 37 percent of the interceptions, 48 percent of the forced fumbles and 40 percent of the sacks. In other words, James Harrison is almost as valuable as two of the four linebackers starting for the Steelers.

Troy Polamalu still has a long NFL career ahead of him and could go down as one of the greatest strong safeties in Steelers' history as well as of all time. You can make a direct connection between the Steelers’ defensive prowess and Troy’s production.

In the two years when the Steelers were not one of the NFL’s best defenses, Troy played a total of 18 games and only five in 2009. Troy only posted three interceptions in those two seasons. When the Steelers’ defense is at their best, Troy is responsible for 30 percent of the team's interceptions and 42 percent of the secondary’s interceptions.

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Taylor has never been known for being a ball hawk, despite having excellent coverage skills, and  has averaged under two interceptions per season. The other starting cornerback hasn’t had to pick up that much slack, however.

When the Steelers are at their best, the starting cornerbacks have only twice combined for a total of five interceptions; the average would be a total of four interceptions.

Last season, Ryan Clark recorded two interceptions and had a total of five in his three full seasons as the Steelers’ starting free safety. Clark has played above average for a free safety so deep into his career.

Clark’s averages as a starter for Pittsburgh are above the averages of the team’s starting free safety, during their peak years. This brings me to believe that the Steelers have a far greater need in finding viable replacements for their two stellar safeties than to find talent at the cornerback position.

How important is the cornerback position to the Steelers’ defense?

Taylor himself hasn’t lived up to the measurables of the position. When the defense is at its best, the starting left corner (Taylor’s position) must post 57 solo tackles, 1.5 interceptions, .4 forced fumbles and .6 sacks. In Ike’s time as a starter he has averaged 60 solo tackles, 1.6 interceptions, .3 forced fumbles and .5 sacks.

Those numbers are what the Steelers will need from their cornerback on a consistent basis. The Steelers' defensive scheme doesn’t ask Ike Taylor to play close to the line very often, and it also won’t put him in a position to be the league’s interception leader.

The Steelers need their cornerbacks to be able to react to what is happening in front of them. Routinely, the Steelers’ cornerbacks will play roughly seven yards off the line of scrimmage and will use a “bend-but-don’t-break” philosophy that allows the opposing receiver to make a short yardage catch with no extra yards after the catch.

Taylor has become a very good coverage cornerback in his time with Pittsburgh. His greatest contribution to the defense has been his speed, however.

When Troy Polamalu is spending his time close to the line of scrimmage, there is almost no overhead help, in case the cornerbacks are beat downfield. Taylor is one of the fastest cornerbacks in football and very rarely will be outran on Sunday.

Taylor has also become a favorite of Pittsburgh’s coaching staff because of his willingness to help in run support and his tackling ability. Taylor has posted more tackles than any other member of the Steelers’ secondary, besides Polamalu, every year he has been a starter.

If Ike were to leave via free agency, the Steelers would have to replace him with someone of comparable speed and tackling ability. When looking at the group of viable unrestricted free-agent cornerbacks, there aren’t many choices.

Here is a list of the fifteen most comparable cornerbacks available and their average statistics since Ike Taylor was made a starter with the Steelers.

NAME

Tackles

Interceptions

Forced Fum

Sacks

Age

Starting LCB (IKE)

57.4

1.6

0.4

0.6

 

Starting RCB

53.6

2.6

0.8

2.12

 

IKE TAYLOR

59.8

1.7

0.2

0.3

30

Richard Marshall, CAR

73.2

2.8

0.6

1

26

Josh Wilson, BAL

45.6

2.7

0.9

0.6

26

Eric Wright, CLE

61

2.4

0.5

0.3

25

Jon Joseph, CIN

52.5

3.3

0.5

0.0

27

Brian Williams, ATL

50.4

2.2

0.8

0.4

31

Lito Sheppard, MIN

33.9

2.8

0.4

0.2

30

Carlos Rogers, WAS

52.9

1.6

0.8

0.0

29

Phillip Buchanon, WAS

50.6

1.9

1.3

0.2

30

Drew Coleman, NYJ

22.7

0.5

1.4

1.4

28

Nnamdi Asomugha, OAK

37.8

1.9

0.4

0.2

29

Antonio Cromartie, NYJ

38.7

3.6

0.0

0.0

27

(Players not listed: Champ Bailey (resigned), Ronde Barber (resigned), Stanford Routt (resigned), and Kennard Cox (resigned))

This list is set up so the cornerbacks with the most comparable statistics to Ike Taylor will be closer to the top. Age was also taken into consideration when ranking the available free agents. The Steelers would want the services of 25-year-old Eric Wright over 31-year-old Brian Williams.

Not all of the cornerbacks listed will have statistics that can be directly compared to Ike’s, however. Different defensive schemes will ask for different things from their cornerbacks. So, not every player should be crossed off the list because their average tackles aren’t on par with Ike’s.

Nnamdi Asomugha is the best cornerback to hit free agency, and the Steelers certainly wouldn’t overlook Asomugha’s lack of tackles if there was a chance of sign him.

The Steelers were only one win away from hoisting their seventh Lombardi in team history. They  don’t need to go out and spend big money on a cornerback like Asomugha; they just need a cornerback that can fill the void left by Taylor.

Certain sports media outlets have ranked the best current cornerbacks in the NFL, and three of them are free agents: Asomugha, Jonathan Joseph and Antonio Cromartie. Considering the Steelers will likely lose Ike Taylor because of contract demands, we can determine that Pittsburgh will not have the salary-cap space to sign any of the three.

One player with similar talent to Taylor, who has routinely ranked lower than the Steelers cornerback, is Richard Marshall. Marshall likely will not be resigned by the Panthers and will have a new home in 2011.

He's been one of the league's more consistent cornerbacks, since entering the league in 2006. Marshall’s consistency paired with his youth (26 years old) could make him too expensive for the Steelers, but he could cost less than Taylor.

Which free agent has the best chance of becoming a Steeler?

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Another interesting option would be for the Steelers to look within their own division to find a viable free agent.

The chances of the Cincinnati Bengals allowing Johnathan Joseph to hit free agency are slim, but the Ravens will likely have to part with one or two of their three free-agent cornerbacks. Josh Wilson, Chris Carr and Fabian Washington are all currently unrestricted free agents. The Steelers could elect to go after one of the three, as their asking price shouldn't be close to what Ike Taylor will garner in free agency.

Of the three Ravens' free agents, Josh Wilson should be the best fit  Wilson isn't the biggest of the three, but he is the most active in run support. Fabian Washington is faster than Wilson, but the 4.39 40 time set by Wilson was only slightly slower than Washington's 4.30.

The free-agent cornerback the Steelers need to sign the most of any cornerback listed above would still have to be Ike Taylor.

Taylor has a great rapport with the coaching staff and is one of the most consistent athletes on the field for the Black and Gold. The only drawback with signing Ike Taylor is that the Steelers aging defense will remain old. The Steelers will also likely have to shell out nearly $10 million per year for Ike Taylor, when that money could be used to resign the younger and, arguably, more important LaMarr Woodley.

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