In the past, it almost seemed as though the Steelers went out of their way to avoid picking a cornerback in the first round. Tonight, it seemed as though they wouldn't be denied.
The first round of the 2016 NFL Draft is in the books, and history will identify it as the first in the past 19 years that had the Steelers use their No. 1 pick on a cornerback. In 1997, it was Chad Scott from Maryland. In 2016, it is Artie Burns.
General Manager Kevin Colbert had been saying for months that he believed the cornerback prospects available in this particular draft represented the deepest group he ever had seen at the position in his 30-odd years in the business. For some, this might have created a belief that a good one could be picked in a later round, but for the Steelers it seemed to trigger the opposite reaction – the need to get one at the first available opportunity.
That opportunity came with the 25th overall pick. It happened even though four cornerbacks already had been selected by the time their turn came. And it happened despite the Denver Broncos calling around to try to get up high enough in the round to pick Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch. The Broncos ultimately got Seattle to bite, and the cost for Denver to move up from the last pick of the round to the 26th pick of the round was a third-round selection in this draft, and so it can be assumed the Steelers turned down a similar offer.
The top portion of Round 1 proceeded as expected, largely anyway. There was the fall of Laremy Tunsil – considered the best offensive lineman available, at least until that photo of him smoking marijuana turned up on social media shortly before the drafting began. But even with that, the first nine picks were players generally associated with the top 10, and the only defensive back among those nine was Jalen Ramsey of Florida State.
View photos of Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 1st Round Draft Pick, DB Artie Burns.
It was widely expected that Ramsey would be the first defensive back picked, and so him going to Jacksonville fifth overall didn't cause anyone to bat an eye, but then things started getting interesting when the New York Giants stepped up to make the 10th overall selection.
Like an NBA game, the NFL Draft often comes to be defined by its runs, and the run on defensive backs started with the Giants picking Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple. After Apple, it was Vernon Hargreaves to Tampa Bay at No. 11, and then rehabbing safety Karl Joseph went to Oakland at No. 14. Florida safety Keanu Neal went to Atlanta at No. 17, and it started to seem as though the league's teams were in agreement with Colbert as to what was the deepest position in this draft.
After Neal was chosen by the Falcons, there were six straight picks made before the next defensive back came off the board. Houston cornerback William Jackson was a player frequently attached to the Steelers through the never-ending series of mock drafts published leading up to the actual event, and for the third time in the past five years the Cincinnati Bengals picked a cornerback on the first round. It was Jackson.
But if the Steelers were surprised by that development, it didn't show in the team's response. With six defensive backs picked, and with the Broncos burning up the telephone lines looking for a trading partner in order to get themselves a quarterback, the Steelers acted quickly. While ESPN aired some mindless interview with Minnesota's No. 1 pick, the draft tracker indicated the Steelers' pick in the first round already had been submitted. After enduring the interview and a commercial break, Roger Goodell finally made his way to the podium and provided Steelers Nation with the news it had been anticipating eagerly for months.
It would be a cornerback in the first round. Finally.
"There's a lot to be excited about with Artie," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "He's a third-year player. He has a lot of growth potential. We're excited about the upsides. He's a master at bump-corner, it appears to be something that's a natural element of his game. He's good at the ball, he's good with the ball down the field. He's right at six feet [tall] or just under. He has elite speed. He's a track man also down there at Miami. We're just really excited about him in general. Good player to work with. He can get things going for us in 2016."
Getting things going for the Steelers in 2016 will be something of a requirement not only for the defensive backs added through the next six rounds of this draft but also by those left on the roster. With Cortez Allen cut, and Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin gone via free agency, there is a numbers issue to go along with the talent/production issues raised by the fact the Steelers defense ranked No. 30 in the NFL last season against the pass.
"I think there's a premium in the NFL right now, (because) there are big receivers," said Colbert. "When you look for a corner, and you can find someone with (Burns') kind of length and that kind of speed, that kind of athleticism and you combine that with the six interceptions (he had in 2015) – that was very, very impressive. And he's still young, he needs work. He'll need work on his off-coverage. He'll need work on his zone coverage. He's a third-year junior. He's only played three years. He's only started two. There is a ton up of upside with him."
Time will judge whether Artie Burns becomes the kind of player the Steelers need at the cornerback position, but there can be little argument now about the necessity for the team to address that position at the first available opportunity. Regardless of what the Broncos might have been dangling in a potential trade.
"It was really easy (to make the pick)," said Colbert. "It was breaking pretty tight, quite honestly. We really felt we had a good chance to get a corner. Again, it was quality (there) from top to bottom. There is still quality left at that position. There are several players on that board at the corner position who still could be starters in the league. We were just fortunate that he made it to us."
That's what they always say, but it's the first time the Steelers have been able to say it about a cornerback in the first round since 1997.