Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 18.
Artie Burns, Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, Justin Layne, Alexander Myres, Steven Nelson, Cam Sutton
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1 unrestricted – Artie Burns; 1 restricted – Mike Hilton)
A LAST LOOK AT 2019
The franchise has had better individuals playing cornerback, because after all, Mel Blount, Jack Butler, and Rod Woodson all have been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But a better, more well-balanced starting duo than Joe Haden and Steven Nelson? It's possible, because the Steelers have been in business since 1933, a span of 87 NFL seasons. But what's not possible is to describe the team's current situation with its two starting cornerbacks as anything but a positive and a significant upgrade over the recent past.
Haden fell into the Steelers' lap thanks to a Browns' brain cramp on the eve of the preseason finale in 2017. Supposedly washed up and unable to run anymore, Haden was cut by Cleveland, and the Steelers signed him almost immediately. In 2019, as a 30-year-old, Haden posted one of the best seasons of his NFL career, with five interceptions, which was his highest total since he had six during his rookie season of 2010. Haden also had 17 passes defensed, played in the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2014, and opposing quarterbacks finished with a 66.5 passer rating throwing against him during the regular season.
Nelson was added as an unrestricted free agent during the previous offseason, and he went weeks last season without being noticed, which is a high compliment for someone playing cornerback in the NFL. Coach Mike Tomlin said at one point during Nelson's first year with the team that he would like to be getting more takeaways from him, and Nelson finished with one interception and one fumble recovery. But he proved to be a tough cornerback for opponents to attack with their passing game, and by the end of the season, Nelson had allowed quarterbacks to complete only 50 percent of their passes thrown at the man he was covering, with no touchdowns, one interception, and a rating of 65.8.
Because the Steelers spend so much time aligned in their defensive sub-packages, depth here is critical. The two cornerbacks who saw the most playing time in the various sub-packages were Mike Hilton, who can be a restricted free agent on March 18, and Cam Sutton, who enters 2020 on the final year of the contract he signed after the Steelers made him a third-round pick in 2017.
Hilton has been the more productive of the two in terms of takeaways, because in his 47 games with the Steelers over the last three seasons he has four interceptions and 6.5 sacks, but in 2019 he also allowed three touchdowns and opposing quarterbacks had a rating of 84.8 throwing at him. After an injury-ruined rookie season, Sutton has played in 31 of the 32 games in 2018-19, and he has two interceptions, eight passes defensed, and one sack during that period. In 2019, Sutton allowed no touchdowns, and opposing quarterbacks posted a 54.1 rating when throwing at him.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
The four cornerbacks who got the bulk of the playing time on defense during the 2019 regular season – Haden, Nelson, Hilton, and Sutton – combined for eight interceptions, which tied the entire team's total during the 2018 season.
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2020
With both Haden and Nelson signed through the 2021 season, the Steelers are set for now as far as the starting lineup, but because of the way the game now is played at the NFL level there can be four cornerbacks who see playing time on defense in the average regular season game. What's somewhat disconcerting is that neither of the current starters was drafted by the team, but both were signed as veteran free agents – Haden after being cut by the Browns, and Nelson as a UFA from the Kansas City Chiefs.
But just because the Steelers haven't had a lot of success drafting cornerbacks, their lack of success largely has been a result of not picking players at the position until late in the second day of the draft and then on the third day, which means later in the third round and then in the fourth-through-seventh rounds. Maybe not this year because Haden and Nelson are under contract and playing well, but the Steelers will have to get back to drafting cornerbacks because trying to stock their depth chart by signing competent veterans is way too expensive.
There always is some angst about the possibility of losing players who are restricted free agents, but when it comes down to it there never seems to be much movement in that category. Mike Hilton is a restricted free agent, and the rules for restricted free agents are as follows: if interested in retaining the player's services, the player's current team extends a tender at one of three different amounts/levels – original round, second-round, or first-round, with each tender calling for more money as the level of compensation rises. That tender sets a one-year salary for the player and sets the compensation should the player sign an offer sheet from a different team that his current team declines to match. Using Hilton as the example, if the Steelers offered him a second-round tender, and Hilton signed an offer sheet from another team that the Steelers decided not to match, the Steelers would receive a second-round draft pick from the team that signed Hilton to the offer sheet. Complicating things with Hilton, though, is the fact he entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent, which means that if the Steelers tendered him at the lowest amount, the original round tender, they only would be able to match any offer sheet Hilton signed and there would be no draft pick compensation to them if they declined to match the offer because Hilton wasn't drafted. Offering Hilton one of the higher tenders would eliminate interest from other teams, but the Steelers might not have the room under the salary cap for that.
As for the rest of the depth chart, it seems inconceivable that Burns, a former No. 1 pick and soon-to-be UFA, will be back after being a healthy inactive for the last six games of the regular season. Sutton will be playing on the final year of his rookie contract in 2020, and he will be getting an opportunity to show the Steelers he will be worth signing to a second NFL contract, which always requires a more significant financial commitment from the team, and in turn puts the player in a situation where his play needs to entice them to make such a commitment.
It will be interesting to see how the competition among the non-starters unfolds, because right now there seems to be two jobs open with Hilton, Sutton and second-year pro Justin Layne in the mix, provided Hilton doesn't leave as a restricted free agent. Layne showed progress on special teams throughout the season, and in fact was the guy who took Burns' spot as a gunner on the punt team and sent him to the inactive list.
NEXT: Wide Receivers