NFL draft: Wide receiver vs. cornerback a decision for Steelers

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They compete on most every play in a football game, much of it one-on-one. Receiver versus cornerback; one wants to catch the ball, the other wants to prevent him from doing so.

That competition might very well have taken place in the draft room at the Steelers training facility for weeks. Cornerback versus receiver, which one do they draft in the first round?

It is a good time for the Steelers to be needy at cornerback and wide receiver, because the prospects at both positions are plentiful in numbers and quality in this draft.

Steelers Report: Will first draft pick yield a cornerback?

Post-Gazette writers Gerry Dulac and Ed Bouchette preview the NFL draft and offer their opinions as to who the Steelers might select in the first round. (Video by Andrew Rush; 5/7/2014)

They need to get much better at both positions and can start doing so Thursday night. But if those are their two biggest needs, in what order might they draft them? Wide receiver in the first round, then cornerback in the second? Or cornerback in the first round and wide receiver next?

And they also need linebackers and defensive linemen, but if it does come down to wide receiver against cornerback, as it does on the field, which do they pick first?

“My feeling would be the cornerback, just because of the way people are playing today,” said Tom Donahoe, the Philadelphia Eagles’ senior football advisor and before that president/general manager of the Buffalo Bills and Kevin Colbert’s predecessor with the Steelers.

“If you look at the draft over time, there probably have been more busts picking wide receivers than there have been picking corners. With the emphasis on the passing game today, you almost feel like you have to have four or five corners on your roster who can play just to compete. More teams are using the hurry-up offense, there’s more emphasis on throwing the ball; you better have people out there covering guys.”

But Donahoe provided a caveat.

“If you feel you have an impact guy, as a receiver who can come in and help your team, take him regardless.”

Then there is the view of BLESTO director Tom Modrak, who worked in Donahoe’s personnel departments with the Steelers and Bills. All else being equal, Modrak would grab the receiver first.

“If you have a dominating wide receiver, the way it’s being played now, it’s hard on teams, it’s hard on matchups, it makes all your other players better,” he said.

Now enter the godfather, senior analyst Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys’ personnel director for their first 29 years of existence. He figures the two most important positions on a team after quarterback are the left tackle and the end/outside linebacker. The third is cornerback.

“If you ask who is easier to come by, it’s easier to come by a wide receiver than a corner, in my opinion,” Brandt said.

And while this draft has quality at both positions, there are many more good receivers than cornerbacks, especially in quality and quantity after the first round. NFL Media draft analyst Mike Mayock predicts six receivers and five cornerbacks will be first-round picks, more than one-third of the choices Thursday night.

The Steelers likely will not get a shot at two of the top receivers, Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans, but they could come away with one of the top three cornerbacks: Justin Gilbert, Darqueze Dennard or Kyle Fuller.

It would make sense that if one of the top-rated cornerbacks fell to them, then they would grab him and worry about a receiver later. But should they drop down a few notches in the first round via trade, they might do so with the idea of drafting a receiver such as Kelvin Benjamin or Brandin Cooks.

“Why take the corner first?” Brandt asks. “Because there is a bunch of wide receivers. So if you take a wide receiver first and then go for a corner in the second round, that player is not going to have — I call it distance from the top. The wide receiver that you get in the second round or the third round is going to be a lot closer to the top than a corner.

“Nothing is infallible, but what you’re trying to do is look back on history and see what is good or what is bad, then you see what the strength of this draft is and the strength is dramatic as far as wide receivers are concerned.”

If you look back in Steelers history, they have failed both in trying to find cornerbacks and committing first-round draft picks on them.

Rod Woodson was their only Pro Bowl cornerback in the past 32 years. He was an all-star with them for the final time after the 1996 season, which means they have not had a Pro Bowl cornerback in 18 seasons.

They also have not drafted a cornerback in the first round in 17 years, since they picked Chad Scott 24th overall in 1997.

In the meantime, they have drafted three receivers in the first round since that Scott pick.

Ike Taylor, a fourth-round draft choice in 2003, has been their best cornerback this century despite never making a Pro Bowl. Bryant McFadden (second round in 2005) and William Gay (fifth in 2007) had some measures of success at the position. Cortez Allen (fourth in 2011) has yet to write his story. After Taylor, Keenan Lewis (third in 2009) might have been their best, but he left last year as a free agent.

Not only have they committed high draft picks to receivers, they have hit bull’s-eyes with them in the middle and late rounds, such as Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown and Antwaan Randle El. With the draft so deep in receivers, they could wait again until the third round to draft one.

“One thing about receivers, when we do our evaluations this year, we can talk about them for two days,” Donahoe said. “There are so many and they come in so many sizes, types, speeds and ability to get open that you always think you have more numbers there where you think you can get one a little later.

“The thing with corners, regardless what kind of year for the cornerbacks, once they start going in the draft they go quickly because people get nervous and think they won’t get one. With more spread offenses, you have to have more people who can cover.”

Ed Bouchette: and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published May 6, 2014 11:45 PM

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