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AFC North Run On Cornerbacks Leaves Steelers Behind Division Trend

It’s not terribly surprising that a pair of cornerbacks went to the AFC North in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Somewhat more surprising would be the fact that neither of them ended up in Pennsylvania, but instead found their homes in Ohio.

The Cleveland Browns got things started by trading from the fourth pick to the ninth pick, and then trading up one more spot, to draft Justin Gilbert, the cornerback with perhaps the greatest speed and ball skills, to pair with Joe Haden, who in his own right has become one of the best cornerbacks in the league.

The other Ohio team, the Cincinnati Bengals, also added to a spoil of riches at cornerback by taking advantage of the somewhat surprising plunge of Darqueze Dennard, who slipped all the way to the 24th spot.

The Bengals already have Leon Hall, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Terence Newman at cornerback. Newman played very well last season, though we’ve yet to see the best from the young Kirkpatrick in his career. Adding Dennard to that mix could give the Bengals the best cornerback grouping in the division.

The Steelers? Probably not so much.

While they should have enough to get by this year—especially after using their first two picks on inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephen Tuitt to bolster the front seven—there’s a reason that cornerback was widely viewed as their biggest need, even if the Steelers didn’t see it that way.

For the ninth consecutive draft, Pittsburgh has eluded the cornerback position in the top two rounds of the draft. The last cornerback chosen in the second round by the team was Bryant McFadden in the 2005 draft.

The rest of the division? The Browns now have two top corners from the past four drafts. The Bengals have now taken four cornerbacks in the first round since 2006.

The Baltimore Ravens selected Jimmy Smith in the first round in 2011, while Lardarius Webb is a former third-round pick. They also used a first on a safety last year.

While it’s never been their modus operandi to use premium picks on the cornerback position—outside of a rare talent such as Rod Woodson, of course—that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an ironclad policy that need be strictly adhered to.

The Steelers used to prefer to wait on their defensive ends, yet have used three picks in the first two rounds at the position now since 2009. Yet all the while, the cornerback position seems to be increasing in importance.

That’s where the division is heading. The Browns and Bengals both figure to field a pair of first-round picks as their starting cornerbacks, while the Ravens will have a first and a third.

The Steelers will bring out Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen, their fourth-round projects, and accentuate them with William Gay and Shamarko Thomas, former fifth- and fourth-round picks, respectively.

Pittsburgh consistently maintains that their primary goal every season is to win the division first and foremost. The division is heading in a direction that puts a premium on cornerback investment.

The Steelers continue rely on mid-round talent to defend the division’s receivers. Is this hurting their ability to compete within the division, which they’ve failed to win for three straight seasons? Which philosophy will ultimately win out? Will Pittsburgh be forced to adapt to stay competitive in the division?

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