The Optimist’s Take – Cornerback Depth

For a team facing so much adversity in the past season and heading into the next with a litany of questions to address, it’s natural to consider the issues and how they can either go right or wrong, as well as how they will affect  the broader dynamics and future success of the team, both heading into this season and into the future.

Though not statistically true, it is technically true that every team enters the offseason with the potential to finish the year as the league champion or as the first team on the clock in the next draft.

Some teams have a wider realistic range than others, and I think the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of those teams. Think of them as Schrödinger’s franchise; in February, they are both future champions and future owners of the top draft pick.

In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the optimistic side of the coin.

Question: What will the cornerback depth chart look like heading into the next season?

It’s already been established by now that the Steelers intend to ask Ike Taylor to take a pay cut. According to Jim Wexell, the team expects Taylor to be a part of the secondary in 2014, barring what would admittedly be a surprising refusal to take less money, given his expressed intention to not play anywhere but Pittsburgh.

Taylor may not be the true number one, shutdown corner any more, but I believe that if they reel in the responsibilities that they place on his shoulder from a down-to-down basis, as they began to do toward the end of the 2013 season, he should be able to rebound, at least to a degree, from a very poor year.

In truth, much of the problem in the secondary last year came from the back end, wherein the safety tandem of Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu was uncharacteristically undisciplined, which contributed heavily to some of the bigger passing plays given up this year, including some of Taylor’s plays.

Tighter play on the back end would go a long way toward making the cornerbacks’ jobs easier, and that’s why the Steelers appear to be active in the free agency market in trying to replace Clark, having already brought in former Detroit Lions safety Louis Delmas for a visit that was evidently a bit more than just kicking the tires.

Taylor could certainly use more of a sure thing on the back end, but so too could Cortez Allen, who I presume will be resuming his starting spot that he lost for most of last season until he regained it toward the end of the year.

The emergence of Allen as a sub-package player is what coaxed the Steelers in allowing Keenan Lewis to walk in free agency without even making an offer, but his first year in the starting lineup could be accurately described as disappointing.

In fairness, he spent a good portion of the first half of the season limited by injuries, beginning in training camp, during which he had a procedure done on his knee that kept him out of a lot of practice time. That certainly set his development back, which was only exacerbated by an ankle injury in the season opener.

When he finally returned, he looked rusty and overmatched by Greg Jennings against the Minnesota Vikings, which led to his benching, but he slowly improved throughout the year, and I expect him to look much more comfortable as a starter heading into this season.

William Gay played a larger role than anticipated when he was brought back to Pittsburgh, but he performed that role admirably, making up for some missed tackles with solid play against the run and a pick six. His only truly poor performance came against the New England Patriots. He should be an excellent sub-package player this season.

Behind the top three are a series of question marks, though question marks not without potential. Most notably, I believe, is Shamarko Thomas, who if not the starting safety should be instrumental this year as the dime back, given his ability to play tight man coverage, as long as he’s not presented with significant size mismatches.

While Curtis Brown could be described as a bust, he wouldn’t be the first player to be a late bloomer, even into his fourth season, which is when Lewis truly began to come into his own. Lewis had more success before then than has Brown, of course.

I’ve always believed that his issues are not physical, but mental and emotional. If he could get over his own mental hurdles, then he may finally be able to contribute to the defense; otherwise he’s well and truly on his last straw.

There remain Devin Smith and Isaiah Green waiting in the wings, but the team won’t wait on them too long. I suspect that cornerback will be targeted early in the draft, and that that player could be a sub-package contributor as a rookie, as Allen and Thomas were.

The cornerback position may not be so bad off after all, if some small changes are made. One must remember that similar units finished at the top of the league in terms of passing yards allowed two years running prior to last season. The main issue was the big plays allowed, which must be worked on this year.

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • steeltown

    No Antwon Blake mention… he saw more action than Green or Smith, he like Shamarko Thomas is shorter than you’d like, but he is fast with a solid frame

    There’s no question we need to draft CB.. Taylor is presumably in his last year

  • 20Stoney

    That’s definitely an optimist’s view!

  • Callentown

    Ike’s on the down curve and while Cortez shows promise, he has yet to cover the other team’s #1 regularly. Gay did step up last year and played better than the rest I believe, but man, we NEED another talented corner.

    If they don’t draft one in the first couple of rounds, I will personally be disappointed.

  • steeltown

    I think “disappointed” is an understatement

  • Callentown

    Agreed steel!

    But you know how it breaks sometimes. Someone – non DB – falls to them in the 1st and they take a tall WR/TE in the 2nd..

  • steeltown

    True. If they don’t take Evans or Benjamin early I’d be fine with them waiting till the 3rd and grabbing WR Coleman or Moncrief, that way they can still grab one of the top DBs in the 2nd

  • Callentown

    Strange layout of CB’s. Seems there are 4-5 that could go first round and then maybe one or two second rounders before a drop to the third.

    Do you see anyone that you’d keep an eye on in the second rd?

  • Callentown

    Maybe Kyle Fuller (VTech)?

  • steeltown

    Fuller at CB and Bucannon at Safety, Pryor would be nice but he’ll be gone by our selection in the 2nd but there are a lot of interesting DB prospects from the 2nd-4th Rd range a couple I like early on are Purifoy and Pierre Desir at CB and Ladler and Dixon at Safety

  • cencalsteeler

    I agree with the last sentence of the article…”The main issue was the big plays allowed” which I contribute to poor tackling. Ike and Clark showed very poor tackling and that’s why I feel both need to go. Ike’s drop off in tackling adds another negative to his skills. Yeah, he can do a decent job of covering guys, but he can’t catch a ball, and now he can’t tackle. Time to address the problem and move on from Ike. Sorry Ike fans, but it’s time.

  • cencalsteeler

    I like where your going. A lot of good talent out there. Let’s hammer down on this secondary and get us back up to snuff. Renting Ike for another year or band-aiding the secondary is not the right formula. I’m all for picking secondary in rounds 1 and 2 and solidifying this backfield for years to come.

  • shawn

    I liken C Brown to Limas Sweed … he is much an enigma, i definitely dont think his issues are size, speed or talent … dont know what his deal is … has the ability but just dont see him turning the corner … i think he is deservedly gone … i would really like to see Green takeover Gay’s sub package role … i like his quickness and reaction to the ball, not sure if he will ever get a chance in the Burgh though … we Need to hit it right on an early CB/FS and hopefully pick up a diamond in the rough in the late rounds to be a good nickel back/depth guy

  • shawn

    i actually think they will be aggressive and pick up a few CBs … call me foolish but this is one of the years I’m actually optimistic about the draft which yes brings the chance to be hugely disappointed !

  • shawn

    Depression would be more like it .. Gay is nothing more than a nickel/role player and Cortez will be solid and the future but Ike is done after next year … these days you need at least 3 stud CBs to go along with a couple decent nickle backs that can make plays … thats a lot of missing DBs in Pitt

  • steeltown

    Well considering this may be the last hurrah for Taylor and C.Brown, it would be wise to keep Green around regardless of who is drafted this year, he could potentially provide depth. Although I think he needs to improve his special teams play.

  • shawn

    haven’t watched his ST play … just saw a little bit in pre season coverage … hope they pick up 3-4 DBs (including UDFA) and let them ALL play a ton in the preseason so we can see what they have … so many players dont get a chance beyond the practise field … and practise is nothing like games … some people are just Gamers and need the time on the field !

  • Callentown

    We haven’t been hearing much about Purifoy, but I like him a lot. Don’t know much about Desir though playing for a small school.

  • Callentown

    I don’t know why, but for some reason – maybe last year’s draft being strong (to me) – but I have a good feeling about this year’s draft as well.

    Hopefully, we nab a player or two in FA to add to that and enter 2014 with some new tools!

  • shawn

    I’m right there with you on last years draft … wasn’t thrilled with JJ pick … wanted Eifert, Rhodes, Hopkins ..etc … but liked the results for sure of the draft … hope we get a great draft and 2 FA pick ups … and at least one of them being a solid starter that is an upgrade

  • steeltown

    Desir could be this yrs Cortez Allen, mid-Rd prospect based solely on the competition he faced, which he dominated. He could provide great value in the 4th Rd

  • sean mcmartin

    You know it Steel. The secondary needs some talent infusion. and the 3-4 works when there is a pass rush up front..Defense needs outweigh a WR at this point and time.

  • dkoy85

    I think part of the optimism can be attributed to the depth in this draft overall. Not to mention sitting at 15 and not needing a O-lineman and a good chunk of positions going off the board in front of us, that we do not need, it would be safe to assume we will come off the board with a play maker that will fall to us.

    If somebody does not drop to us and Evans and Benjamin are both on the board I’d love to see them trade back and try to grab one of them in the 20’s. Get some ammo to go after Fuller(who I am high on) in the second- trade up if need be with the extra pick from the trade- and take another CB round 3. There are a ton of scenarios in this years draft that definitely make you feel optimistic. It does feel like something different is in the air. A few key pieces in the draft, a FA safety, and some development from the young linebackers and this defense will be much improved.

  • http://batman-news.com steellife007

    Here is my optimist take on cornerback……hopefully we will grab a stud in the 1st round of this year’s draft bc we need one badly!

  • sean mcmartin

    Free agent CB should be the focus. Every Steelers fan knows they do not start rookies. Look at how seattle handled the record setting passing game of broncos. Defense should be at the top of the list.

  • alex

    no doubt, we really need to spend a little $$$ on a FA CB/FS/SS to help our transition the next 2/3 years first, then draft those youngsters…

    all this after signing Worilds now for that 5/40 contract!

  • sean mcmartin

    From the articles I’ve been reading on Colbert and Rooney. They are looking for a starter in FA. They have the same consensus. Ben only has a couple years left..The Time is now.
    They can transition after Ben and it won’t be fun. But at least the fans can see the logic.most fans that is.

  • Reg Sayhitodabadguy Hunt

    I really liked the last two drafts the 2011 had alot of talent decastro/rainey/spence / teamu but injuties and charactrrr issues hurt that draft class big time which i feel made the FO smarter becausebofbit which led me to believe that last yrs draft had alot of stand up guys that were team captains hope this yr they buil on yhat and draft talented team captains

  • steelster

    ben has more than a couple years left try four or five, you will have to drag him off the field.

  • dkoy85

    I agree. And maybe sprinkle in a guy with a lot of upside but with MAYBE a red flag- Kinda like Burfict. I wanted that kid so damn bad and going undrafted because of character issues mad him a huge bargain.

  • Callentown

    I agree. I will say this though, with the addition of Munchak, and our ‘issues’ at Tackle, never know about that O-lineman that drops.. Just sayin..

  • alex

    me thinks you are correct…getting more comfortable with the Haley scheme, a young and improving line, and the emergency of Bell, he will actually be virtical/healthy now more so than ever in his career!

  • pat

    Id be happy with Desir in the 3rd and Dixon the 4th grab Matthews with the 2nd and Nix with the 1st move McLendon to end. also in the 3rd from comp we get Skov

  • steeltown

    Dion Bailey? Im thinking 4th Rd, he is an interesting prospect