Will Cortez Allen see another Saint Vincent training camp?
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Just because the Steelers haven’t drafted a cornerback in the first round since Chad Scott in 1997 doesn’t mean they haven’t tried to address the position with a top pick.
In 2014, they thought Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State would be available with the 15th overall selection, but the Cleveland Browns drafted him higher than most anticipated at No. 8. Last year, Washington cornerback Marcus Peters was in their crosshairs with the 22nd pick until the Kansas City Chiefs took him four spots earlier.
They will have the same intentions again this year, maybe even more so, as they attempt to improve the weakest position on their team.
Even though they have the 25th overall pick in the draft, the Steelers could have a shot at a good cornerback because five, and maybe even six, could sneak into the first round. It doesn’t mean they will get the one they like. Or even if they will actually select one.
But there would appear to be more urgency than in a long time.
The Steelers ranked 30th against the pass last season and allowed more passes of 40 yards or longer (12) than all but two teams in the AFC. There are enough good cornerbacks in the draft, especially at the top end, who have shown they can rectify that problem.
What’s more, the Steelers used their sub-packages (five or more defensive backs) 75 percent of the time in 2015, an increase of 10 percent from the previous season. That puts an increased emphasis on having more than just a couple cornerbacks who can cover.
“It’s really just the ability to cover,” general manager Kevin Colbert said last week at the NFL combine, talking about what he called a deep class of cornerbacks. “There are some who are going to be bigger than others, there are some who are going to be faster than others and there are some who are going to be better man-to-man, some better in zone. So, it’s mix and match. You may have a preference, you may not get to select your preference and you have to take the best available.”
The Steelers don’t have many cornerbacks in their stable right now. Three of their top five cornerbacks at the end of last season — William Gay, Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin — are unrestricted free agents. Not all will be re-signed because the Steelers don’t intend to have the same secondary personnel as last season. And why would they?
The Steelers have only four cornerbacks from last season under contract — Cortez Allen, Senquez Golson, Doran Grant and Ross Cockrell. And it is unclear what will happen with Allen, a fourth-round choice in 2011.
Despite the fact he is scheduled to count $5.75 million against the salary cap in 2016, and that he was benched for poor play each of the past two seasons, Allen has the length (6 feet, 1 inch, 196 pounds) and athleticism the coaches desire in a cornerback.
The Steelers believed Allen was their cornerback of the future when they signed him to a five-year, $24 million contract extension before the 2014 season. Since then, he has yet to complete a season on the 53-man roster because of injuries. The Steelers think those injuries may have contributed to his poor play.
Still, when asked after the season if he is confident Allen can bounce back, coach Mike Tomlin said simply, “I am not.” Keeping Allen does not make a lot of financial sense.
“Prior to him getting injured with the knee and the thumb, Cortez did some good things when he was younger,” Colbert said. “His production per snap was … impressive, and that’s why we signed him to the deal we did. Unfortunately for him and us, it just hasn’t matched up.”
Golson, a second-round pick in 2015 who missed the entire season with a shoulder injury, does not have the size (5-9, 176) to match against some of the league’s tall receivers. But he has the speed (4.4) and cover skills to run with any receiver in the league and will come to camp as one of their top two corners.
This draft, though, has several cornerbacks with size and speed, and two players who fit the bill could be available when the Steelers select at No. 25 — Ohio State’s Eli Apple and Houston’s William Jackson III.
Apple (6-1, 200) is a long, rangy bump-and-run corner who had 22 pass breakups the past two seasons at Ohio State. In addition to being a big hitter and strong tackler, he ran the 10th-fastest 40 time of all players at the combine (4.40). Apple, though, is young (20) and entered the draft after his redshirt sophomore season with the Buckeyes.
“He’s very physical, he’s going to get his hands on you, but he can run with you also,” said Ohio State teammate Vonn Bell, one of the top safeties in the draft. “He wants to take away the best player in the game.”
Jackson (6-0, 189) is a physical press corner with long arms (313⁄4 inches) who led the Football Bowl Subdivision with 14 pass breakups and had two interceptions for touchdowns in 2015. But he might have moved into the first round of the draft after running a 4.37, sixth fastest of all players at the combine. At the very least, his time will force coaches and general managers to go back and look at his tape to see if his performance matches his speed.
“That’s something in the NFL that’s really important, to be a physical guy at the line of scrimmage and be able to take receivers off their path.” Apple said. “And that’s something I do better than anybody, in my opinion. My press technique is, to me, better than everybody out there. That’s the main thing I do. I’m a physical guy and I get up on receivers and impact that.”
Impact is something the Steelers need at cornerback.
How they were built: Steelers cornerbacks
Year acquired: 2011 draft, fourth round
School: The Citadel
Signed: Through 2018
Year acquired: 2013 FA
School: Texas-El Paso
Year acquired: 2015 in trade
Year acquired: 2015 FA
Signed: Through 2016
Year acquired: 2013 FA
Year acquired: 2015 draft, second round
Signed: Through 2018
Year acquired: 2015 draft, fourth round
School: Ohio State
Signed: Through 2016
Draft prospects (as rated by nfldraftscout.com)
1. Jalen Ramsey, Florida State Jr.
2. Vernon Hargreaves, Florida Sr.
3. Eli Apple, Ohio State So.
4. Mackensie Alexander, Clemson So.
5. William Jackson III, Houston Sr.
6. Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech Jr.
Monday: Deadline for clubs to designate franchise or transition players, 4 p.m.
Wednesday: Trading period and free agency for 2016 begins, 4 p.m.
March 20-23: Annual league meeting, Boca Raton, Fla.
April 22: Deadline for restricted free agents to sign offer sheets.
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