Steelers again shopping for cornerbacks in draft and free agency
March 12, 2017 11:59 AM
Artie Burns, the Steelers' top draft pick last year, stepped in and stepped up in 2016 with three interceptions -- most among NFL rookies.
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
This is becoming something of a refrain for the Steelers.
Despite paying plenty of attention to the defensive backfield in each of the past two drafts, the Steelers will go shopping again for at least one cornerback in the draft and possibly another in free agency.
They are on the lookout for players who can play man coverage, something they would like to use more of if they want to get past Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. They discovered that when Brady torched them the few times they switched to man coverage in the AFC championship game, not that zone coverage was doing any better.
The Steelers think they have one of those players with cornerback Artie Burns, last year’s No. 1 draft pick who led all NFL rookies with three interceptions in 2016. And they thought they were getting one of those players when they took Senquez Golson in the second round in 2015.
But Golson has missed two training camps and hasn’t played in a game of any kind because of injuries since the Steelers drafted him with the 56th overall selection. He will try to make a comeback in 2017, but the Steelers aren’t exactly optimistic he can be the same player for whom they had so much hope, even just a year ago.
“I’m a little more apprehensive,” said general manager Kevin Colbert. “Just sitting out two years is a concern became we haven’t seen him. And when you don’t play, it’s not really easy to step up and get caught up. It’s probably going to take him longer to get caught up just to being a football player.”
The Steelers planned to use Golson to replace veteran William Gay, especially as the slot corner. Gay began the 2016 season as the starter opposite Ross Cockrell, but it was only a matter of time before he would be replaced by Burns. When he was in Week 9, Gay became the nickel back who played in sub packages.
The Steelers would prefer that not be the case again in 2017, particularly after what they saw against the Patriots. Gay, who is 32, is solid in zone coverage, but he got picked on when his back was to Brady in man coverage.
Further muddling the cornerback picture is the low tender offered Cockrell, who started all 19 games in 2016, including postseason, and was lauded early in the season for shadowing Cincinnati’s A.J. Green. Cockrell does not appear to be part of any long-term plans for the Steelers, at least not as a starter. If he were, they would have tendered him an offer that would make it difficult for him to leave. Not so now.
Burns was the first cornerback to be selected in the first round by the Steelers in 20 years — since Chad Scott in 1997 — and they didn’t waste any time getting him in the lineup after he returned from a training-camp injury. That was their hope for Golson, too — first as a rookie, then entering his second season — but they have no such plans now.
The Steelers will address cornerback in the draft — and maybe a safety who is adept at man coverage — but there is a good chance they will go after a cornerback in free agency who can play in the slot, or even challenge Cockrell.
That might lessen their need for a cornerback in the draft, but it won’t totally erase their desire. And the draft offers a lot, as it does every year with the advent of spread offenses.
“Because of spread offenses, you get a lot of spread defenses,” Colbert said. “There are a lot of cornerbacks and safeties in this group.”
The search for cornerbacks is such that five have been drafted in the first round in each of the past three years. The only positions that have had more top picks in that time are offensive and defensive linemen.
This is not only one of the deepest cornerback crops in years, it is also on one of the tallest. Most of the top corners at the combine measured at least 6-feet, including three players who were 6-foot-3 or taller. Among those are Washington’s Kevin King, who is being projected as a day 2 selection. That is good news for the Steelers, who are seeking a corner with length.
One of the top corners under 6 feet is Iowa’s Desmond King (5-10, 201), who is also being projected as a safety. That is OK by the Steelers, who interviewed King at the combine. They want anyone who can play man coverage.
“If you don’t get one in the first round, you can come back in the second or third round and really help yourself,” said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.