CORNERBACKS – 8**
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1 restricted – Stephon Tuitt)
He was the first cornerback the Steelers had drafted on the first round since they did it with Chad Scott in 1997, and by the end of his rookie season Burns was showing that he belonged in an NFL starting lineup. Burns got his first career start in Baltimore on Nov. 6, and that also was the occasion of his first NFL interception. His three interceptions during the regular season tied Ryan Shazier for the team lead, and his 13 passes defensed was second to Ross Cockrell. The Steelers have been looking for a cornerback who could make plays on the football when it's in the air, and they have found one in Burns. An area to improve is his physicality, but he played his whole rookie NFL season as a 21-year-old. His body has yet to mature, but even so, Burns was more physical in January than he was in November.
The starting cornerback opposite Burns, Cockrell is the physical cornerback that Burns has to work to become, while Burns is the get-hands-on-the-ball guy that Cockrell has to work to become. As he is today, Cockrell isn't a finished product, but given the current configuration of the roster at this position, he is still a starting-caliber NFL cornerback. Come the start of the 2017 season, Cockrell will be a 25-year-old with 26 total NFL starts (23 regular season and three postseason) on his resume. A restricted free agent, the Steelers reportedly have tendered Cockrell at a $1.8 million salary for 2017, which means they would receive a fourth-round pick as compensation should they choose not to match any offer sheet from another team.
Dixon – 5-foot-11, 199 pounds – entered the NFL with the New York Jets in 2014 as a sixth-round draft pick from Northwest Missouri State. He was cut by the Jets and claimed by Tampa Bay, and in 14 games that season with the Buccaneers, he had nine tackles and an interception. In 2015, he spent time on the practice squads in Seattle, New England, and New Orleans. Released by the Saints in August 2016, he signed onto the Steelers practice squad last December and will try to do enough during the offseason to get to compete at Saint Vincent College.
Gay has played 10 seasons in the NFL – nine of those with the Steelers – after being a fifth-round draft pick from Louisville. A role player and a spare part at first, Gay worked and developed sufficiently to become much more than that rather quickly. One of the things that helped him was his durability, and at the end of 2016 he had a streak of 160 consecutive games played. He had 10 career interceptions with the Steelers, and he returned five of those for touchdowns. But now 32, Gay still has the required savvy to do the job, but some of speed and quickness have declined with age. The Steelers have to get better play from the slot cornerback position in 2017 for the defense to continue to improve.
Who knows? That seems to be the way the Steelers are approaching Golson, who is entering his third NFL season without having made it through a whole week of training camp yet. After being a No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, Golson missed his entire rookie season with a shoulder injury, sustained during the offseason program, that eventually required surgery. Then last summer, after a couple of days at Saint Vincent College, he injured a foot that required surgery and sidelined him for all of his second season. "Last year (at this time), it was one injury. But now, it's two. And it's a foot, as opposed to an upper-body injury," said General Manager Kevin Colbert. "Any time a defensive back, wide receiver, or any skill guy gets a foot injury, you're a little concerned. Because, does he go from a 4.4 to a 4.45, or a 4.5 (in the 40-yard dash). We won't know that until we see him out there. So I'm a little more apprehensive. And again, just sitting out two years is a concern because we haven't seen him. And when you don't play, it's not really easy to step up and get caught up. It's probably going to take him longer to get caught up just to being a football player." Golson has two years left on a rookie contract currently paying him the minimum, and so all the Steelers can do is hope for the best and plan for the worst.
Hilton (5-9, 184) entered the league with Jacksonville as an undrafted rookie from Mississippi in 2016. He was waived by the Jaguars, then spent some time on New England's practice squad, and then was signed to the Steelers practice squad on Dec. 13. He signed a futures contract with the Steelers and will try to build from there.
Same situation as Mike Hilton, only Johnson is 6-0, 180 and played college football at Weber State. He originally signed as an undrafted rookie with the Atlanta Falcons.
In his final two seasons at West Chester University, Shabazz totaled nine interceptions, and he was one of only 11 non-Division I players invited to participate in the NFLPA's Collegiate Bowl in the run-up to the 2015 NFL Draft. That, and with him being 6-2, 200, got him a contract with the Colts in as an undrafted rookie. He also spent some time with Tampa Bay in 2015 before signing a futures contract with the Steelers in February 2016. He bounced around between the practice squad and the active roster, was claimed by Houston, and ultimately returned to the Steelers. He'll try again this offseason, but he already did show some promise on special teams.