Steelers-by-position: CBs

Posted Mar 4, 2016

Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 9.

Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 9:

(Free Agent Scorecard: 3 unrestricted – Antwon Blake, Brandon Boykin, Will Gay)

Once upon a time, Allen was seen as a big part of the team’s future in the defensive backfield, but as of today that time seems to have passed. Confidence and a short memory are said to be two qualifications found in every quality starting NFL cornerback, and somewhere along the line Allen appears to have lost those. Allen does possess a lot of the must-have physical requirements, but the $5.75 million salary cap hit in 2016 shines a stark light on his lack of production. Today, it looks like an unrealistic leap of faith to expect/hope Allen will turn it around and become the player the Steelers hoped when signing him to his contract extension in 2014.

As irrational as Steelers fans can be about disliking a particular player – since this is about cornerbacks, Will Gay immediately comes to mind – they showed an irrational love for Boykin, acquired in an Aug. 1 trade with the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for a fifth-round draft pick. There was nothing ever about Boykin that made him a bad teammate, but he just never impressed the coaching staff that he was better than the role he ended up filling. The Steelers didn’t believe he could be an outside cornerback in their defense, and he wasn’t as good as Will Gay in the slot when it came to the combination of coverage/tackling skills they were looking for in the middle of the field. And exacerbating the issue is that Senquez Golson – the player the Steelers had tabbed for the role of slot cornerback – will be back for 2016, and Boykin can become an unrestricted free agent on March 9.

This is a situation where a player just isn’t capable of being what the team has assigned him to be. Blake is a tough player, a guy who can line up at cornerback and also is a core special teams player. But he isn’t a starting cornerback for a team looking to contend for a championship. It’s not Blake’s fault that the Steelers had no real better options last season, and it isn’t fair for him to bear all of the criticism for the way things turned out. Regardless of the venom directed at him by a segment of the fan base, Blake is a guy the Steelers should be interested in bringing back. But that interest should be commensurate with the role he’s capable of filling. If fans thought of Blake as a modern-day version of Chidi Iwuoma, their perspective of him would be closer to the reality. For the Steelers, though, they have to understand they have to do better in 2016 than having Blake start at cornerback.

If the trade for Boykin is destined to go down as a failure, the pickup of Cockrell was a success. Waived by the Buffalo Bills, Cockrell was signed by the Steelers on Sept. 5 partly because the team had an interest in him when he was entering the draft following his college career at Duke. At 6-feet, 191 pounds, Cockrell has nice size, and in 15 regular season games he finished with two interceptions, 11 passes defensed, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. Ending the season as a potential exclusive rights free agent, Cockrell already has signed for 2016. A good addition, and a player who will only be 25 in August.

A sixth-round pick of the Bears in 2012 from Nevada, Frey, 6-0, 190, has played in 16 NFL games over three seasons with Chicago and Tampa Bay. Signed to the Steelers’ practice squad on Oct. 27 in the wake of Cortez Allen being placed on injured reserve, Frey is in the mix.

This is one of those situations where the sides are better off staying together, and both sides have first-hand knowledge of that. He celebrated his 31st birthday on New Year’s Day, and because Gay already has completed 10 NFL seasons he is coming up on the twilight of his NFL career. His 2015 season ended with two interceptions, one of which came in a December game in Cincinnati that turned into an NFL record fifth straight pick-six. Following the 2011 season, Gay left the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent to sign with Arizona, but after one year in the desert he was back in Pittsburgh for the 2013 season. Gay certainly seems to be someone worth bringing back, because the Steelers only can expect to turn over so much of their secondary at a time, and because he remains one of the better and more versatile players at his position.

There are high hopes for Golson within the Steelers offices, and because he was a second-round draft pick there are high expectations for him outside the walls of the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. Golson injured his shoulder during the offseason program and opened training camp on the physically unable to perform list, but he was kept around through the initial phase of camp before he had surgery, because Coach Mike Tomlin wanted to expose him to the day-to-day process the Steelers go through in the team-building phase of the year. After going on the injured reserve list on Aug. 31, Golson was around the team throughout the 2015 season as well. Had Golson been healthy for camp, the trade for Brandon Boykin never would have been made.

Another defensive back drafted by the Steelers last April, Grant was waived the day after the Steelers signed Cockrell, but he was signed to the practice squad two days after that. There has been talk all the way back to the time he was drafted that Grant’s best NFL position possibly could be safety, but that should be allowed to develop over the offseason as the Steelers navigate free agency and the draft. Wherever he lines up, though, Grant will be expected to be a contributor in 2016, his second NFL season.