Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here >>>
As we get closer to the NFL draft, there's a lot of talk about what makes a great cornerback. He should have good size for the position along with being fast and athletic.
But one thing that doesn't get talked about nearly as much as it should is the fact he also should have a good head on his shoulders.
The Steelers have long valued intelligence in their cornerbacks. It's that last trait, which often can't be measured on a track or football field, that has helped mid-round cornerbacks such as Deshea Townsend, William Gay and now potentially Cam Sutton, become starters.
And apparently, given their paths at the Steelers, those players come along about once every 10 years.
Sutton was a third-round draft pick in 2017, Townsend was a third-round selection in 1998, while Gay was taken in the fifth round of the 2007 draft.
Both Townsend and Gay had 10-plus-year careers, spending most of them with the Steelers. Sutton, re-signed by the Steelers to a two-year deal this offseason, would like to have a similar career path.
Interestingly, their careers all intersect. Townsend was still with the Steelers at the end of his career when Gay joined the team as a rookie. And Gay was in his final season with the Steelers when Sutton was brought in.
Sutton hopes to be that guy, as well, a sage veteran giving advice to younger players.
"I learned so much from him," Sutton said of Gay. "I didn't get the opportunity to stay on the field as much as I wanted to with him, but watching how he moved, how he carried himself in the building and out of the building. That was uplifting to see that on a daily basis and be around that older kind of guy."
Both Townsend and Gay began their careers with the Steelers as nickel corners before eventually becoming starters on the outside. Along the way, they gave themselves additional value by learning not only how to play all the cornerback spots, but lining up at safety, as well.
They knew the entire defense and were players the coaching staff counted on to make sure everyone was aligned in the right spots. Not surprisingly, both got into coaching when their playing careers ended. Townsend has worked for several different teams and is currently the defensive backs coach for the Bears, while Gay, who just retired in 2018, was defensive backs coach at Missouri State last year before leaving to spend time with his son. While it remains to be seen what Sutton will do with his career post football, it does look like his playing career is on a similar track – with the intelligence factor at the forefront and allowing that to take shape.
"Cam is a very smart young man," Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said prior to the start of last season. "We feel like he is better in those types of situations because he is athletic, he is very smart. Very few times you are going to see him out of place when he is in coverage."
That is why the Steelers could be leaning on Sutton is play a greater role this coming season. They know he's capable of playing on the outside in their base defense and moving inside when the team goes to its sub-packages.
"I love that. It's more opportunity to impact the game," Sutton said. "There are situations where it is a base defense out there. Then there are situations where there are situations based on what we're seeing. We're all in it together. We're all moving pieces and parts. I have the comfortability to start outside and then bump inside. That's all the versatility in the game."
His teammates appreciate that versatility and knowing that Sutton is always going to handle his duties, as well.
Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick has an idea of what it takes to move around in a defense like Sutton has done. He did similar things in his rookie season with the Dolphins before being traded to the Steelers.
"It's definitely tough, especially when you're going inside to outside," Fitzpatrick said. "A lot of guys like Cam, his job has been to cover the guy inside on third downs. Now, in the middle of a game, you transition to outside, your film study, you were looking at the outside guys, but you were looking more at the inside guys and their tendencies. He's a great player and can cover really well. He has showed that."
It's the same way that Townsend and Gay's coaches and teammates used to speak about them.
Now, at 26, Sutton is growing into a more senior member of the defensive backs group, which might allow for him to now be a mentor himself - just as Gay was to him and Townsend was to Gay.
It all gets passed down.
"I really appreciated that from him," Sutton said of Gay. "All the talks, whether they were small or big, the finer points you could take from things that change your life forever. That's what he was able to be for me."