There were many outside of the Pittsburgh Steelers organization who came away at least a little perplexed when the organization failed to select a cornerback prior to the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
Even though they were returning their top four cornerbacks from last year—including Antwon Blake—and added an experienced slot corner during free agency in Brice McCain, the wide consensus was that the Steelers were likely to target the position early in the draft.
But it wasn’t until the name of Shaquille Richardson was called during the third day of the draft that the Steelers addressed their secondary, much to the chagrin of those who believed that Ike Taylor had already fallen off a cliff.
Certainly, there are concerns about the cornerback position, and not a little amount of uncertainty as to how they will hold up this season.
Last year, for example, the defense as a whole gave up more plays of 40 yards or more than I can recall in recent years, and as previously mentioned, the same cast of that performance is returning for an encore.
Not without nuance, of course. For starters, there is a new safety at the back end. Taylor isn’t expected to be left on his own covering the opponent’s top receiver on a weekly basis.
Cortez Allen is healthy and looking to do this year what he’d hoped to do last year, which allows William Gay to stay in the slot, where he is at his best.
Should an injury arise, however, the Steelers will be turning to a smorgasbord of undersized applicants, such as the aforementioned Blake and McCain, but also Isaiah Green and safety Shamarko Thomas, most of whom have limited NFL experience.
Could Richardson and his six-foot frame possibly work his way up the depth chart and contribute in the dime package as a rookie, as Allen did a few years ago? Allen, after all, was a mid-fourth-rounder considered a project himself.
The Steelers took a chance on a fifth-round cornerback a year ago who supposedly had the talent of a player that could have been drafted much higher, yet he didn’t even make the practice squad. Richardson sounds like he may have a better go at it.
Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider spoke to defensive backs coach Carnell Lake earlier during training camp about Richardson and how he is performing, and his words were encouraging—as has been the rookie’s performance thus far through three days of practice. Here is what Lake had to say about the player he once recruited in college and helped draft:
“Shaq is always around the ball. He’s very close in coverage. He doesn’t shy away from press coverage. When you get a guy like that, who has confidence in staying close to receivers, I think you’ve got something. I think we’ve got something, especially considering we got him in the fifth round”.
During the Steelers’ first padded practice, the rookie traveled high and low to try to prove that the stage isn’t too big for him, and that he can help the team sooner rather than later. As Wexell described it, he first made a diving interception of a Bruce Gradkowski throw, and came back on the next rep to defend a pass high intended for the 6’4” Martavis Bryant.
Positive early signs, even if there’s still a long way to go in determining the course of his rookie season. As it currently stands, he’s not even guaranteed a roster spot, but by season’s end, he could be contributing on defense.