The Steelers have never been big players in the free agent market and it should come as no surprise that when they have ventured to be somewhat active in free agency with Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert in control, the cornerback position is one they choose not to address. Willie Williams, Keiwan Ratliff and Chidi Iwuoma are the only cornerbacks you could remotely call free agent cornerback acquisitions under Colbert and it is a stretch to even say that.
Williams was drafted by the Steelers in 1993 and played 4 seasons in Pittsburgh before heading off to Seattle for 7 years. The Steelers signed him back in May of 2004 as an unrestricted free agent at the age of 33. He was only back in a Steeler uniform for 2 more seasons after starting just 11 games during that span.
Ratliff was signed as an unrestricted free agent in April of 2009, but was mostly used on special teams and to provide depth at the cornerback position. Ratliff saw less than 100 snaps on defense for the Steelers over a course of 3 games. He did not last long as the Steelers released him later that November.
Iwuoma, as many know, was a special teams ace and it is a stretch to even add him here as a free agent signing. He was released by the Lions prior to the start of the 2002 season and the Steelers signed him quickly as Hank Poteat was suffering from a turf-toe injury. Iwuoma was not re-signed following the 2005 season, but did return late in 2006 for 2 games. Once again it was for his special teams play and not his cornerback abilities.
As far as the safety position goes, the Steelers have ventured there a bit more under Colbert. Dating back to 2000, the Steelers have signed free agent safeties Brent Alexander, Mike Logan, Tyrone Carter, Ryan Clark and Will Allen. Carter and Allen are not what you would call higher profile free agent signings though as they were signed more for depth reasons.
The Steelers choose to develop their cornerbacks through the draft as we have seen time and time again over the years. Since Colbert took over in 2000, the Steelers have drafted 11 true cornerbacks and 5 of them have come in the last 3 drafts. If you include safeties, the Steelers have drafted 15 total defensive backs since 2000.
Cornerbacks Ike Taylor, William Gay and Anthony Madison are all unrestricted free agents now and the speculation is that if the Steelers lose Taylor, they might sign another unrestricted free agent cornerback to replace him. It is not out of the question that they will, but you can see over the years that Steelers have chosen not to do this. Had free agency taken place during its normal time in March this past offseason, the likelihood of them doing that would have been greater, as they would have had time to fit a free agent into the Dick LeBeau system during the mini camps and OTA sessions. Should the lockout end soon and free agency take place just a couple of weeks before training camp starts, it is hard to see them gamble like that. Their best course of action is to throw the young cornerbacks into the deep end of the pool or bite the bullet and pay Taylor. While Gay has had his struggles over the years, he is not totally worthless. He should be easy to re-sign to help bridge the transition to a younger cornerback group. Madison on the other hand is just a special teamer and likely will not be asked back.
Should the Steelers take an unprecedented dip into the unrestricted free agent cornerback pool when it starts, I expect it to be a player that comes very cheap and would be surprised if that player hits the field as a week 1 starter should indeed both Taylor and Gay end up elsewhere. Judging by the Steelers history under Colbert, I think they are best served doing their best to get Taylor back in the fold or they might as well roll the dice with the inexperienced youth at the position.