INDIANAPOLIS — If the Steelers or any other teams are looking for big, physical cornerbacks to copy the Seattle Seahawks, they are not going to find them in this year’s NFL draft.
They certainly aren’t in abundance at the NFL Scouting Combine, where only four of the 39 cornerbacks invited to Lucas Oil Stadium were taller than 6 feet.
Of the top seven cornerbacks generally considered the best prospects in the draft, four are 5-11 or smaller.
“Big, fast guys are the fewest people around,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “Everybody would like to get longer, taller guys that run a 4.4 [40-yard dash]. But there are just not very many humans like that in the world, you know. So it’s rare when you find them and then you have to develop the guys.”
Carroll did that in Seattle when he found Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman (6-3, 195) and Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor (6-3, 232) in the fifth round and signed cornerback Brandon Browner (6-4, 221) as an undrafted free agent.
“When we had Brandon and Richard playing, you can’t get any longer,” Carroll said. “Those are the two tallest cornerbacks to play together arguably in the history of the league. So it’s, ‘Well, let’s go do that.’ But there are no players like that. Look at this draft, there are only a couple of guys over 6-1 at corner. So that’s just how it goes.”
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said the two deepest positions in the draft are wide receiver and cornerback, which just happen to be two of the positions the Steelers likely will address early.
But, while the wide receiver position has a number of top prospects who are 6-3 or taller — including Mike Evans of Texas A&M (6-4, 231) and Kelvin Benjamin of Florida State (6-5, 240) — most of the top cornerbacks are considerably smaller and likely to be projected as nickel backs who line up in the slot in the NFL.
Only two cornerbacks at the combine — Keith McGill of Utah and Stanley Jean-Baptiste of Nebraksa — measured at 6-3, None of the other cornerbacks were as tall as Ike Taylor, who is 6-2. Only two were as tall as Cortez Allen, who is 6-1.
“I don’t think cornerbacks in our scheme are as unique as maybe the outside linebackers would be,” Colbert said. “You’re looking for a guy that can cover and somebody that will tackle. I don’t think that’s unique to us.”
The Steelers will look for a cornerback in the early rounds of the draft because of Taylor, who will be 34 in May and saw his role as a shutdown corner evaporate toward the end of the 2013 season. Taylor will count for $11.94 million against the salary cap in 2014 and, at the very least, will be asked to take a significant pay cut. He could even be released, saving the Steelers his $7 million salary, though the likelihood is slim because the Steelers don’t have a starter-in-waiting behind him.
At least, not right now.
Could the Steelers use a No. 1 pick on a cornerback?
The two best prospects in the draft are Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State (5-11, 190) and Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State (6-0, 202). Gilbert is the faster of the two, and showed as much Tuesday on the final day of testing at the combine when he ran a 4.37 in the 40-yard dash — the fastest time of any cornerback. He also did 20 reps on the 225-pound bench press, tied for third most among cornerbacks.
Dennard, who won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back, ran an official 4.51 — fast enough to cement his position as a top-15 or top-20 pick. But he is considered more physical than Gilbert and often lined up as the boundary corner in Michigan State’s defense.
But because the position is considered so deep, the Steelers think they can find a solid cornerback after the first round. Some of the other top-rated prospects are Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech (6-0, 194), Lamarcus Joyner of Florida State (5-8, 184), Marcus Roberson of Florida (6-0, 191), Jason Verrett of TCU (5-9, 193) and Bradley Roby of Ohio State (5-11, 194), who ran an official 4.39 in the 40.
“Whether it’s more zone or more man, I think it’s the old adage that I learned from Don Shula a long time ago — when you’ve got red paint, paint your barn red,” Colbert said. “It’s a matter of the individual player. I don’t think cornerback is unique for us, for our scheme or any scheme.”
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @gerrydulac.