Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 14.
CORNERBACKS – (10)
Brian Allen, Artie Burns, Antonio Crawford, Greg Ducre, Will Gay, Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, Dashaun Phillips, Coty Sensabaugh, Cam Sutton
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1; 1 restricted – Greg Ducre)
A LAST LOOK AT 2017
The Steelers opened the regular season with six cornerbacks on their 53-man roster, and a seventh, Cam Sutton came to be the IR-designated to return player when he was activated for the Dec. 4 game against the Cincinnati Bengals. The unit also got a big boost right before the start of the regular season when the Steelers quickly signed Joe Haden to a three-year contract and installed him as the starter opposite Artie Burns after the Browns cut the guy they picked seventh overall in the 2010 NFL Draft.
Of the team's top seven cornerbacks from 2017, six of them were in their first or second years with the team. And of those six, four of them were 24 or younger when the season ended, and the other two were both under 30.
It's fair to compare what the Steelers are trying to do here with what the team accomplished a few years ago with the offensive line in terms of upgrading the talent and then going all-in to develop those young guys. Burns and Haden entered the league as No. 1 picks, and Cam Sutton was a No. 3 pick, which represents a decent commitment in terms of draft capital to the upgrading of the position.
The cornerbacks combined for six of the team's 16 interceptions and 33 of the 80 passes defensed, and those numbers need to be higher. But what can be said today about the cornerbacks that couldn't be said about them one calendar year ago is that the guys at the top of the depth chart are capable of playing man-to-man coverage. Maybe not flawlessly, and maybe it still must get better, but well enough for man-to-man coverage at least to be a change-up option for the defense.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
Since 1992 when Bill Cowher was hired – a span of 26 seasons – Steelers cornerbacks have combined for 10 or more interceptions in a season just three times: 1993, 1996, and 2000. In 1993, Rod Woodson was voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year in part because of his eight interceptions; in 1996, Woodson got the cornerbacks more than halfway to double-digits with six interceptions; and in 2000, starters Dwayne Washington and Chad Scott finished the season with five apiece. During those 26 seasons, the most interceptions turned in by Steelers cornerbacks in any single season was the 12 in 1993, and Woodson's eight accounted for 66.7 percent of the total.
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2018
For the first time in several years, it's fair to look at this unit as one that's not in desperate need of reinforcements via the draft or free agency. In Haden, Burns, and Sutton, the Steelers have a representative top of the depth chart, and while it's fair to expect more from Burns it's also relevant to remember that he won't turn 23 years old until May 1.
Both Burns and the Steelers should benefit from having Haden around throughout the offseason program and for his first training camp/preseason with the Steelers. It also should be a significant help to the defense to have Sutton available for training camp, because he missed so much valuable on-field time with an injury that ultimately sent him to the injured reserve list for the bulk of his rookie season.
Having Burns, Haden, and Sutton all working and practicing together should accelerate the development of the defense as a unit, but how the rest of the free agency/draft portion of the offseason unfolds could impact whether those three players all will be cornerbacks come the opening of training camp in late July.
If the Steelers don't upgrade themselves at safety enough for their own liking, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Sutton could be moved there to strengthen the secondary as an overall unit. When Sutton was about to enter the NFL via the draft last season, there was some belief that his ultimate position would be safety, but that never had a chance to be considered because of the team's need at cornerback and then the player's injury that sidelined him for just about all of his rookie training camp.
The overall team need at cornerback was lessened somewhat by the emergence of Hilton, a guy who entered the league as an undrafted rookie and then was something of a reclamation project after being waived by the Jaguars and Patriots before signing a futures contract with the Steelers. Hilton's emergence last season as a capable slot cornerback could allow the Steelers to make the move with Sutton if it's deemed necessary.
Allen is much less likely to be considered for a position switch, because the Steelers really like what they have in a cornerback who is 6-foot-3 and has the athleticism and experience of playing wide receiver for some of his college career at Utah. The belief is that Allen can develop into a starting-caliber cornerback, and the Steelers thought so much of his potential that they made the rather unprecedented move of keeping six cornerbacks on their opening 53-man roster so that he wouldn't be exposed to waivers. Allen already has been preparing his body for his second NFL season, and should enter training camp as one of the most intriguing returning players on the roster.
The team's salary cap situation figures to have an impact on whether Coty Sensabaugh is brought back for another year, but if the financials can be worked out, he's a solid, versatile veteran who is injury insurance as well as someone who can contribute on special teams.