Devil’s Advocate: Another Rookie Starter At Cornerback

You may recall for the past several offseasons that I ran an article series called The Optimist’s/Pessimist’s Take. I used it to explore different issues and topics the Pittsburgh Steelers were facing and took a positive or negative approach, examining each side in a separate article. This is essentially the same idea behind that, only condensed into one article for every topic.

In this version of the idea, I’ll be playing the Devil’s Advocate for both sides of the issue, looking at the best-case and worst-case scenarios in trying to find the range of likely outcomes of what is likely to happen for the Steelers relating to whatever topic the article is covering.

When it comes to the process of trying to construct a championship roster, the reality is that there are a ton of moving parts, and several ways to acquire said parts. There are a lot of things that can go right or wrong in not always predictable ways, so I think it’s helpful to try to look at issues by seeking out the boundaries of the likely positive or negative results.

Topic: Could the Steelers find another rookie starting outside cornerback in the 2017 NFL Draft?

It’s not every year that we get to discuss a Steelers draft class and talk about a cornerback drafted in the first round, let alone a cornerback who actually was given the opportunity to make significant contributions during his rookie season, but that is what we got last year in Artie Burns.

The 25th-overall pick in the draft was used right off the bat as a dime defender before shortly inheriting the nickel back role, coming in to play outside. By the second half of the season, he was starting on the outside, and he intercepted three passes from that point on.

Opposite Artie Burns is Ross Cockrell, who entered the 2016 season in his third year, the second with the team, and the first as a full-time starter. He led the team in passes defensed, although he did not record an interception after having two the year before in a less significant role.

What we know is that the Steelers placed an original-round tender on Cockrell as a restricted free agent, rather than a higher tender that would have meant paying him more, but would have offered more protection against somebody signing him.

What we think we know, according to reports, is that the Steelers very seriously made attempts to upgrade the starting cornerback position in free agency, with their name being connected to some of the top to mid-tier players. Davon House was brought in but signed elsewhere. They did sign Coty Sensabaugh.

So what does that really say about what they think of Cockrell?

Not as much as I think some might think. They clearly like him and they believe he can start. He was their best outside cornerback last year, though they anticipate that Burns will surpass him. Cockrell’s heady understanding of the game is not to be overlooked.

But this is also a rich group of cornerbacks in the draft that they probably want to take advantage of, and it could be that the best player available in the first round is at that position. It’s even more likely to be the case in the second round.

It will be difficult for a rookie to unseat a veteran starter who is already somewhat established. But the team is already on record saying they’d like to have more man-to-man flexibility. Ultimately, that may be the most important factor in a rookie cornerback winning a starting job on the outside.

Which side do you lean closer toward?

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

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

  • falconsaftey43

    I think it’d be hard for a rookie outside CB to start consistently over Cockrell. I think you could see some rotation, but it’s much different than last year. Last year Burns was really battling Davis as the 3rd CB. They only had Gay and Cockrell at CB outside the rookies. I could see a nickle CB having better luck, if they’re a better man cover option than Gay.

  • will

    Man to man coverage and a “Peezy like pass rush on Payton Manning” (2005 playoff game) are the keys to slowing down Brady. IMO

  • Kevin Reich

    They weren’t exactly locking down wr last year. No pro bowlers. Upgrades available all over.

  • tcirish53@gmail.com

    Honestly I wouldn’t rule out either approach PROVIDED that the draftees AND existing DBs are used in a manner that will prevent free releases for the opposing WRs.
    I understand that we have had limitations in talent at the CB position for years now and the team has taken steps to improve that, a la what they previously did for the O line (with great success).
    This is a chicken or egg situation – is the coverage soft because the DBs prior to Burns lacked overall talent/man coverage skills? Or (and I believe this to be the case) is it that Coach T grew up with Zone coverage and installed what he knew?
    Either way I give Tomlin credit for recognizing that Tampa 2 will not work vs Brady and other elite QBs. And I applaud the effort to reshape the secondary as we have the O line.

  • VaDave

    A lot of that was due to poor up field pressure by the DL. IMO, that is the biggest problem on defense. You could put together an all world secondary, but if you are giving the QB a clean pocket to step into, and 4-5 seconds to throw the ball, the boys on the back end are going to be toast. You want to beat Brady, you’d be best served by stuffing his OL in his face. Atlanta had the right idea, and would have won the Super Bowl in Matty Ice wasn’t a bone head.

  • tcirish53@gmail.com

    You are correct sir!
    And if we beat the best we will beat the rest!!!

  • Steel Realist PAul

    The Steelers clearly need additional talent at the CB position after years of ignoring it. Golson not showing he can play makes it worse because they need an inside and an outside CB now .. smh.

  • RickM

    I think the Steelers made no earnest effort to sign a high to mid-tier free agent CB. House ended up signing a $2.8 M one-year deal with Green Bay, easily topped if the Steelers were serious. And no high to mid-tier free agent CB even visited. I think they’ve been targeting the draft all along. The only question is what round. Good arguments could be made for any of the top three rounds.

  • H.K. northern cali

    The answer is yes.

  • budabar

    Brady has always had the same prob the rush up the mid in his face but teams never seem to learn and keep rushing the edges and keep loosing to him-load the mid and send the house and this guy can’t bailout quick enough

  • Ray Powell

    I guess it depends on who’s available. Personally, I lean towards the Steelers getting a pass rushing OLB in the first round, it’s very likely that a good enough player will be available and there’s greater high end depth at that position than CB, plus there looks to be more depth at CB in the second and third rounds. In the end, the Steelers will stick to their board, CB is a possibility but I feel OLB is the greater probability and, of course, some other positions could be a factor, such as ILB.

  • Andrew

    I feel like we are gonna take two to three DB’s in this draft. While we don’t need a rookie starter, I feel like Cockrell has a safe spot. Gay is a more up in the air. We could draft an outside guy and let him take over for Cockrell next year.

  • Ni mo

    Was one of the top teams in sacks last year , so you can upgrade over him with Kevin king , adoree Jackson , or move cockrell to RCB and burns to lcb

  • Steeler-Drew

    I lean towards upgrading from Cockrell if they truly want to play more man to man. We know Burns has the pedigree and was drafted for his man coverage abilities. In fairness to Cockrell I’m not sure if anyone including the Steelers knows how he will play in man coverage. He did a great job against Green but that’s only one game that was played in poor weather conditions. I’m willing to give him a chance but I think it’s imperative to have a replacement waiting in the wings if he is not up to the task.

  • Boots

    If they let draft talent meet team need there is a good chance that by the end of the season there is another rookie starter at outside cb. That’s not a shot at Cockrell either, he’s a decent young player and its nice to have him so that a rookie doesn’t have to come in and start immediately, but if scheme versatility is what we’re looking for than he may not fit in the plans past this year anymore

  • John Pennington

    The steelers need to come out of this draft with 2 corners and a safety at all cost in case they have to bench Mitchell down for hus ooor play.They steelers cant afford to wait on his replacement this is the best draft for a safety take advantage of it.

  • Conserv_58

    Mitchell’s play was slightly below the line. Gay’s play was below sub par, hence the reason why the Steelers are entertaining the idea of having him switch to safety.

  • Conserv_58

    Two key reasons for that: (1) Other than rookie, Artie Burns, none of their CB’s are proficient at man coverage. It was revealed after the AFCCG that Keith Butler chose not to go with man coverage because Ross Cockerall is a liability in man coverage. (2) Without a good pass rush not even the best CB in the league can cover for very long before his man eventually gets open. The Steelers lack of a legitimate pass rush has been an issue since the 2010-11 seasons when they had Deebo and Woodley on the outside.

  • Mark

    I like Ross as a backup, I don’t view him as starting CB material and I’m hopeful that we can out with a starting CB or Safety that can play man to man on slot WR or move TE’s (Edlman or Gronk)

  • KiJana Haney

    I lean towards grabbing a starting cb in the first then grabbing willis in the second

  • JohnH

    What is the name of this rookie cornerback you hint at in the title of your article?

  • JohnH

    How does Gay play safety???

  • JohnH

    Yep, Brady gets ordinary real fast with pressure in his face!

  • Darth Blount 47

    If we knew for sure that Willis would still be there in the 2nd, I’d definitely get on board with this idea.

  • Darth Blount 47

    There is absolutely no way Mike Mitchell, costing us almost 9 million this year, gets benched. I was following your comment along nicely until you tried that point.

  • popsiclesticks

    This might be a rare year where you can get top-10 caliber corners at 1.30, and 1st round edge guys in the 2nd. I wouldn’t be surprised at all. Guys like Kevin King and Gareon Conley have no business being available in round 2 but that just might happen this year.

  • Darth Blount 47

    I really think the answer to the above question comes down to draft capital. If we spend our 1st round pick on an Outside CB, one could rightly assume that we went that route to have a guy start over Cockrell, and MAYBE from Day 1. I think the same holds true for the Slot. If we fill that with a pick in the top 3 rounds, it is likely that we are gonna let that person come in and compete against both Golson and Gay, and with the hope and intention that the player will win out and start. Though starting Day 1 from the slot, will require the right guy who has experience and the appropriate moxie. Desmond King and Tre’Davious White, BOTH fit that mold.

  • KiJana Haney

    With the getting the defense as best as possible we need to grab a cb because the olb class is so deep. A quality player will be there for us in the second.

  • Darth Blount 47

    That’s the funny conundrum of this draft… I can make that same argument either way! “Take the best Edge/OLB for us at 1.30 because CB is deep enough that you can find a really good starter in rounds 2 or 3!” Lol.

    I love how incredibly deep this draft is Defensively for us.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Did any high-tier CB even take a visit? They all seemed to sign without doing so.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Gay’s alleged demise has been greatly exaggerated.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Artie Burns?

  • KiJana Haney

    Yea its wonderful I can see us getting at least two regular starters from this draft. As long as they got defense for the first two picks im ok

  • RickM

    We heard a couple of “rumors”, nothing more. If interest existed it could have simply been one phone call asking what they were asking for. Surely that isn’t enough evidence that they made a legitimate attempt to sign them. There were no follow-up statements about offers from the Steelers, or the Steelers were close…nothing. There’s just nothing out there that confirms they were active participants. No comments from the team nor the CB’s. Do I think they made a sounding out call, probably. But that’s not an earnest effort.

    Marcus Cooper is a perfect example. There was supposed interest from the Steelers and Cooper visited the Bears. But we didn’t invite him for a visit. Sorry but that doesn’t seem like much of an effort to get one of them.

  • Matthew Marczi

    I don’t know, multiple reporters who have spent time embedded with the team have talked about their being in serious pursuit of guys like Kirkpatrick. Sure, they were outbid, and that was probably inevitable, but it seems to me they made earnest effort, in contrast to the sort of reports that have come out in years past like the infamous Revis phone call.

  • RickM

    That’s a fair point, and I do agree there was more interest than Revis. I respect your opinion. I guess I would just like some, even rumored, verification of offers. But I realize that’s usually unrealistic.

  • MC

    I feel like Mitchell may have taken a slightly bigger step back from the previous year than Gay.

  • MC

    So frustrating that all the nfl analysts were pointing out the success that Texans had pressuring brady up the middle and we try our typical zone defense with outside rushers. Wasn’t it stubbornness or stupidity?

  • Matthew Marczi

    Mitchell didn’t have the same sort of impact plays as the year before, and he had a few notable bad moments, but overall he’s still a worthy starter. I might start looking for his replacement in 2018 though.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Yeah, it definitely would have been nice to have gotten something more substantial than “if Kirkpatrick doesn’t want $10 million then the Steelers might get him”.

  • MC

    If a player like Obi falls to us at 30 I’d be very comfortable with them taking a guy like that, let them learn under Mitchell for the year and then part ways with him. I thought we would of gotten more out of Mitchell’s tenure but I think his ceiling with us has been reached.

  • Matthew Marczi

    If he plays the way he did in 2015 I would have no issues with Mitchell. One thing to consider is the fact that he was working with both a new and a young crew, and there were a lot of shifting parts during the season. The opening lineup was Gay/Cockrell outside, Davis in the slot, Golden/Mitchell in the back, Burns coming in every so often in the dime. That evolved into Burns/Cockrell with Gay in the slot and Golden/Mitchell, then Golden and Davis rotated for a few games, then Davis supplanted Golden…given his role as a communication hub it would be understandable if that contributed to his performance last year dipping from the high of 2015.

  • Alan Tman

    Cockrell just said recently that he wants to learn to play in the slot, so that’s exactly how a rookie corner gets on that he field. I would take S. Jones or A. Witherspoon in the third or Shaq Griffin in the fourth.

  • MC

    Would have to bulk up a little i’d imagine, don’t want AP trucking him over the middle again haha. he knows the defense well enough to make the transition but I don’t think steelers are a team to convert players like that.