Just in case some of you readers did not remember, 1997 marked the last year that the Pittsburgh Steelers selected a cornerback in the first round of an NFL Draft. Although the Steelers have found other needs to fill in the first rounds over the last half decade, the franchise’s brass could be primed to select their first cornerback in a first round since they picked Chad Scott over a decade and a half ago.
As I have pointed out extensively, the Steelers will enter this offseason with only three cornerbacks on their roster who have any sort of extensive experience at that position. Although veteran William Gay and promising youngster Cortez Allen are slated to return, long-time veteran Ike Taylor could be a cap casualty this spring.
The rapidly declining veteran has yet to record an interception in 2013, has only logged 11 passes defensed and has been picked on more often by opposing offenses during Pittsburgh’s 6-8 start. Taylor will turn 34 years old in May, so Pittsburgh’s cap-strapped front office will need to make a decision regarding whether or not they would like to bring back a player who is set to make $7 million in base salary next fall.
Even if he is forced to take a pay cut, the Steelers will likely have to welcome Taylor back since the depth is so thin behind the top three at the positional unit.
Curtis Brown has done nothing to inspire faith that he can step up at the cornerback position in his fourth season in the league, and the former Texas Longhorn will be returning from a knee injury he sustained last month. In addition, Antwon Blake and Isaiah Green have only seen special teams duty during their short stints with Pittsburgh as well.
With their personnel and depth issues, the Steelers could be primed to select a cornerback in the first round of May’s draft.
If the Steelers do target a cornerback at that specific juncture, I believe that their choice will be narrowed down to two specific players: Darqueze Dennard of Michigan State and Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State.
Many believed that Gilbert would have made the jump to the NFL this season after he enjoyed a productive sophomore campaign with the Cowboys in 2011 (59 tackles and five interceptions). The sturdy (6′ 200 lbs.) cornerback slumped last fall (63 tackles and zero interceptions), his draft stock took a hit and he wisely came back for another season of development at the collegiate level.
Gilbert’s decision paid off in full, and the cornerback is currently in the midst of a career-year. The senior leads the Cowboys in interceptions (six), passes defensed (13), interceptions returned for touchdowns (two) and has tallied 40 tackles to boot. With his larger frame and terrific ball-skills, Gilbert could be worth a look as a middle of the first round pick if the Steelers’ brass believe that he has the tackling skills and discipline to become a force in their zone-heavy defensive scheme.
Gilbert is also an experienced kickoff returner (six touchdowns during four collegiate seasons), and the Steelers are in desperate need of someone to take over for Felix Jones, Jonathan Dwyer and Emmanuel Sanders as the primary kickoff return man.
Like Gilbert, Darqueze Dennard could be a first round cornerback option for the Steelers as well. The 2013 Jim Thorpe Award winner is coming off of a tremendous season and terrific overall career with the Michigan State Spartans. A three-year starter in East Lansing, Dennard racked up career-highs in tackles (59), forced fumbles (two), passes defensed (10) and interceptions (four) this fall.
Although he might not possess the potential athletic upside, speed or takeaway skills of a cornerback like Gilbert, Dennard is as physical as they come for a cornerback his size (5’11″ 197 lbs.), gives opposing receivers fits with his physicality in pass coverage and is an adept tackler when asked to help against the run.
Although the 2014 NFL Draft class is not very top-heavy when it comes to cornerbacks who would be fits in Pittsburgh’s defense, Gilbert and Dennard could be on the radars of some of the franchise’s scouts as we speak. Yet as I alluded to above, this team has not placed a premium on selecting cornerbacks particularly early during recent drafts.
Dick LeBeau and his secondary coaches have seemed much more comfortable to address their cornerback needs in the middle of the draft with physically gifted and raw project picks like Taylor, Keenan Lewis and Allen to name a few. Nevertheless, I will be interested to see how high the team selects a cornerback this May, especially since the positional unit will sorely need depth once this regular season ends.
The Steelers’ brass cannot afford to enter next season with only Taylor, Allen and Gay at their disposal, so an upgrade or two could stand to be found as soon as possible.
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