By: Zach Metkler, The Burgh Blog Writer
After taking a look at the Steelers outside linebacker depth, I will now take a look at the cornerbacks, which is a group that the Steelers have been trying to improve after being arguably the worst unit on the team over the past few seasons.
Players on Roster:
-#22 William Gay (5’10″, 187 lbs.; 31 years old; 10 years experience; Louisville)
-#31 Ross Cockrell (6’0″, 191 lbs.; 24 years old; 3 years experience; Duke)
-#27 Senquez Golson (5’9″, 176 lbs.; 22 years old; 2 year experience; Mississippi)
-#25 Artie Burns (6’0″, 197 lbs.; 21 years old; Rookie; Miami)
-#24 Doran Grant (5’10″, 200 lbs.; 23 years old; 2 years experience; Ohio State)
-#30 Donald Washington (6’1″, 197 lbs.; 29 years old; 4 years experience; Ohio State)
-#40 Montell Garner (5’11”, 188 lbs.; 24 years old; 1 year experience; South Alabama)
-#44 Al-Hajj Shabazz (6’2″, 200 lbs.; 23 years old; 1 year experience; West Chester (Pa.))
Over the past few years, the Steelers cornerback depth has undergone huge changes. Gone are the likes of Ike Taylor, Keenan Lewis, Antwon Blake, Bryant McFadden, and Cortez Allen. During this transitional time, the Steelers secondary was widely considered to be one of the worst units in the NFL. To help offset this decline, the Steelers have spent the past 2 offseason’s addressing their secondary, using 3 draft picks on high-round cornerbacks. Leading the group is longtime corner William Gay, who after leaving the Steelers for 1 season, has revived his career by being one of the more underrated defensive backs in the league. Now that is not to say that Gay is a Pro Bowl caliber corner; he simply is not. But if it weren’t for Gay, the Steelers secondary would be eons worse than it has been over the past few seasons. One stat os interest that I heard recently is that Gay was the only corner in the NFL last season to not allow a single touchdown against a receiver that he was covering. That is incredible to say the least. Gay is a playmaker when he forces an interception, as he is tied with NFL Hall of Famer Rod Woodson for the most career interceptions returned for touchdowns in Steelers history with 5. While Gay continues to be the Steelers #1 cornerback, he has regressed some with age and his days are likely numbered as the Steelers top cornerback. But for the time being, he is hands down the best corner on the roster. But his duties will likely go onto one of the young players on the roster soon.
Behind Gay, Ross Cockrell is the second most experienced cornerback on the roster after playing 62% of the teams defensive snaps in 2015 after only playing 11 total snaps during his rookie season with the Buffalo Bills. Last season, Cockrell performed admirably, totaling 44 tackles, 2 interceptions, 11 passes defended, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Not bad for a player picked up off of the waiver wire. Cockrell is a smart player with good size who Mike Tomlin was interested in drafting during the 2014 NFL Draft. With a season under his belt with starting experience, it is possible that Cockrell could be in the Steelers future plans after choosing to resign him instead of Antwon Blake or Brandon Boykin. With a 1-year deal, the Steelers could be waiting to see what they have with Cockrell with a full offseason under his belt and how he blends with the other young corners on the roster. If everything plays out, Cockrell could sign a 2- or 3-year contract with the team following the 2016 season.
Before the Steelers scooped up Cockrell, the used a 2nd round pick on Senquez Golson, a 5’9″ dynamo from Ole Miss. Unfortunately, Golson’s season ended before it really got started after undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery before the season started. Golson was still able to be around the team and learn all of the mental intricacies that are required of players in the NFL. While at Ole Miss, Golson became one of the best defensive players in the SEC and amassed a ridiculous 10 interceptions during his senior season, becoming the first unanimous All-American at Ole Miss since Michael Oher in 2008. Many people believed that the Steelers reached when selecting Golson in the 2nd round, but some people believe that Golson has large potential:
“Golson has the twitch, ball skills and instincts to be an outstanding cornerback in the NFL. Despite playing so much zone in college, there is no reason to believe he can’t transition to any coverage asked of him. He’s well put-together, but his lack of height could force some teams to view him as a slot-only corner. Golson has Pro Bowl potential.”
If Golson can perform even half of the way that he did at Ole Miss, the Steelers secondary will instantly improve.
Even though the Steelers used a 2nd round pick on Golson in 2015, the Steelers still had a void to fill at the position, which is what led them to selecting long, athletic Artie Burns from Miami. A 6’0″, 197 lbs., Burns brings the Steelers something that they haven’t had since Ike Taylor was in his prime: the potential for a true #1 lockdown corner. There is no denying that Burns is a raw prospect, which has led to many fans believing that Burns was a reach at the end of the 1st round. Now while everyone is entitled to their own opinions, listen to mine: Burns will surprise people during his rookie season. One of the biggest positives that Burns brings with him to the NFL is his unwavering work ethic both on the
field and in the film room. Throughout OTA’s and minicamp, Burns was paired up with All-World receiver Antonio Brown and while Brown has gotten the best of Burns on many occasions (which is to be expected when the best receiver in the league goes up against a rookie cornerback during the offseason), Burns has stood his own a number of times, showing off his elite ball skills and speed (especially his recovery speed). Burns won’t be expected to be the #1 cornerback at the beginning of the season, and honestly the team doesn’t need him to be. But it isn’t too far-fetched to see Burns’ role increase on defense as the season progresses. There is no reason to not believe that by the end of the season or the beginning of the 2017 season, Burns will be the Steelers #1 corner. Wait for it. Some analysts believe that Burns has the potential to be the best corner in this draft class. If that’s the case, the Steelers will have their #1 corner for the next decade.
In 2015, Golson wasn’t the only cornerback the team took. The Steelers made Ohio State corner Doran Grant their selection in the 4th round and after an up and down rookie season (Grant made the 53-man roster only to be cut the following day, cleared waivers from all 31 other NFL teams, signed to the practice squad, and finally re-promoted to the 53-man roster), Grant has the chance to be one of the last corners to make the roster. There have been plenty of rumors circulating that the Steelers view Grant as more of a
safety prospect but these rumors have largely come from Carnell Lake stating that Grant has some “versatility”. So while the idea of playing a hybrid corner/safety role is definitely there, Grant is almost certainly going to be a cornerback moving forward with the Steelers. The reason why Grant has a greater chance of making the final roster over the other 3 corners that I will discuss momentarily is due to the fact that he has special teams experience, which the Steelers love in their depth players. Grant definitely has the potential to be a nice role player with the Steelers but 2016 will go a long way in determining if he has a long-term future with the team.
Donald Washington, Montell Garner, and Al-Hajj Shabazz fill out the remainder of the
Steelers cornerback depth heading into training camp. All 3 players bring a different background to their positions and all are equally interesting. Washington is another former NFL draftee turned CFLer trying to crack an NFL roster again later in his career. The former 2009 Chiefs 4th round pick has yet to really make an impact in both the NFL or CFL but has shown the athleticism needed to be NFL football player. Similar to last years CFL gone NFL phenom Shawn Lemon, Washington has the physical traits that make him a tantalizing prospect. Unlike Lemon, however, Washington was anything but a standout during his time in the CFL and his odds of making the final roster are slim to none. Montell Garner, on the other hand, is a prospect that will be worth keeping an eye out for. After starting football during his junior year of high school, Garner quickly gained the attention of college coaches from schools like TCU, Baylor, and Colorado. This never ended up happening and after spending 2 years at a Junior College, Garner began his career at South Alabama and put together a solid collegiate career. After a failed attempt with the Rams as an UDFA in 2015, Garner was on his way to joining the AFL’s Orlando Predators before the Steelers stole him away for a future’s contract. Garner has a
long road to go before he makes any strides for a roster spot but he has shown solid potential during rookie minicamp and OTA’s, making difficult plays on the ball look easy. The Steelers like forcing turnovers and if Garner can manage to do that during the preseason, his status with the team could become an interesting one. Shabazz has a similar route to the NFL, playing at D-II West Chester. While there, Shabazz was a standout and wowed with tremendous size (6’2″, 200 lbs.). Shabazz is far from an elite athlete but he possesses decent ball skills and coverage skills. Like Garner, it will take Shabazz some work to make the final roster but there is the potential to land a practice squad spot after the preseason.
Expected Depth Chart:
- William Gay
- Ross Cockrell
- Artie Burns (with the potential to move up to the #2 spot)
- Senquez Golson
- Doran Grant
Total Players Making the Final 53-Man Roster: 5
It is much easier trying to decide which players will make the final roster than it is trying to decide where each one will start out. First, the easy part: it is almost a no-brainer that Gay, Cockrell, Burns, Golson, and Grant will be the corners on the roster come week 1 of the season. But where will they be? As it currently stands, Gay is the clear cut #1 and Cockrell will continue to be the #2. Grant will be the final corner to make the roster at #5 but Burns and Golson are the tricky part. The #3 corner typically goes to a nickel corner, which at first glance would be right up Golson’s alley due to his ball skills and physicality. However, I believe that the Steelers will be hard-pressed to get Burns onto the field as quickly as they can to get him experience against legitimate competition. The issue with Burns is that his calling isn’t really as a nickel corner. With his speed and length, he has outside corner written all over him. This is why I believe that as the season continues, you will see a depth chart that looks more like this:
- Ross Cockrell
- Artie Burns
- William Gay
- Senquez Golson
- Doran Grant
Once upon a time, Gay was the Steelers primary nickel corner and he flourished in this role upon his return to the Steelers. As Gay continue to age, his speed and athleticism is bound to begin declining, which makes him a perfect candidate to play in the nickel against smaller, shifty slot receivers. However, this move will only happen if Burns is able to show enough growth during the season to take over the #2 corner duties, where he will be able to showcase his elite speed against premier NFL talent. In a perfect world, however, by 2017, Burns will be the #1 cornerback, Cockrell will be #2, and Golson will be a solid nickel corner at #3 with Gay coming off the bench in dime packages and being a veteran presence for the young group of corners. But for 2016, it will all be a work in progress as the season goes along.
Coming up next: Safeties. Stay tuned!