The Pittsburgh Steelers enter the 2016 offseason desperately needing to upgrade their secondary if they wish to continue the recent success they have experienced by making the post season two years in a row after disappointing 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013.
The organization did not waste any time by signing cornerback Ross Cockrell to a one-year contract extension last week. A solid year as one of the biggest contributors in the Steelers’ secondary earned him the deal, but Cockrell alone will not solve the team’s issues at the position. Still without contracts are William Gay, Antwon Blake, and Brandon Boykin.
To put into perspective how much the Steelers’ secondary is in need of an upgrade, we turn to Blake as a prime example. In the sixteen regular season games he started, Blake gave up 1,074 yards in coverage and missed a total of 28 tackles. These are numbers that you never want to see from any athlete, especially one that is considered starting material. While there were a few bright spots from Blake this season, these moments were few and far between.
Steelers’ Nation will debate until the end of time that the most simple way to alleviate problems in the secondary is to select a cornerback in the first round of the upcoming draft. Collegiate playmakers such as Jaylen Ramsey, Vernon Hargreaves, and Mackensie Alexander will not be available when the Steelers make their selection at 25th overall, Tre’Davious White is returning to LSU for his senior year, and Eli Apple is too raw of a defensive back to be considered a top-32 talent.
To find a cornerback that will make an impact in their secondary for years to come, the Steelers must explore their options on the free agent market.
Carolina Panthers’ cornerback Josh Norman will be the most sought after defensive back when free agency begins in early March. The Panthers will most likely retain the star athlete but, in the event that they are unable to, he will command a heavy yearly price tag if any other team in the NFL wishes to enlist his services.
Do not expect the Steelers to be one of the teams to go after him.
Instead, they will be able to find prime talent in the same conference as Mr. Norman. Trumaine Johnson, one of two premiere Los Angeles Rams cornerbacks that are hitting the free agency market, could very well be the next great acquisition the Steelers have made for their secondary since bringing Mike Mitchell aboard in 2014.
When E.J. Gaines was sidelined before the start of the season with a Linsfranc injury in his foot that required surgery, Johnson was tasked with starting on the outside across from Janoris Jenkins. Suddenly thrust into a starting role, he answered the challenge by posting the best numbers of his four year career. Starting in thirteen games he made seven interceptions, defended seventeen passes, and recorded 71 total tackles, along with a lone fumble recovery.
Below is Johnson’s first interception in 2015, where he instinctively picks off a pass intended for running back Marshawn Lynch in the Rams’ week one game against the Seattle Seahawks.
Hailing from the NFC West, Johnson has matched up against some very talented receivers from within his division. Wideouts such as Larry Fitzgerald, Doug Baldwin, and Anquan Boldin are only a few of the wide receivers Johnson played against multiple times this season. Notable outer-conference opponents Johnson was paired up with this season were Antonio Brown, James Jones, Calvin Johnson, and Mike Evans. The talented corner put on a display that has not been seen in quite some time from a Steelers’ defensive back.
Perhaps the most impressive performance from Trumaine Johnson this year was when he held Calvin Johnson, better known as “Megatron”, without a catch when he was tasked to cover him in the Rams’ week fourteen matchup against the Detroit Lions. Returning to the field after missing two games due to a nagging quadriceps injury, the cornerback made the All-Pro receiver look helpless at times, and continued to make a name for himself as one of the better cover cornerbacks in the league.
Johnson’s intercepted pass intended for Megatron, his fifth of the season and only pick-six of 2015, was a brilliant display of what a talented cornerback can do for a defense. Reading quarterback Matthew Stafford from the beginning of the play, he timed his play on the ball as perfectly as possible and came away with the pick. The ensuing 42 yard return for a touchdown was a culmination of patience and allowing his blockers to take care of the work for him instead of attempting something that could potentially cause him to fumble.
Including Johnson, the Rams have a total of 21 free agents to address when the time comes at the start of the new league year. With Gaines returning from his foot injury and Jenkins looking as if he is the least expensive of the two free agent cornerbacks, it is unlikely that Los Angeles will extend him a new contract offer.
The Steelers will have some space in their salary cap this coming season to play the free agent market and offer a reasonable contract to an athlete. Even more so if they are able to restructure the contracts of Lawrence Timmons and Heath Miller, who have a combined $22 million in cap hits next season. Don’t expect the Steelers to outright cut either of these players, as they are both still important pieces of the offense and defense…only not as much as their contract dictates.
The Steelers are not a team known for making a big splash in the free agency market. Finding immense talent through the draft and promoting in-house has been the tried and true method in Pittsburgh for many years, but now may be the time to take a chance on a proven, blockbuster cornerback. If Antwon Blake is asked to cover A.J. Green once again in 2016, it could lead to a Steelers’ Nation revolt that will end with the burning of Fort Pitt Bridge.
Is there a possibility that we could see Trumaine Johnson in a Steelers’ uniform next season? For the sake of Pittsburgh’s perforated secondary, one can only hope. In the coming months the organization’s intentions will become more clear, and hope could return in the form of a 6’1″, dominant cover cornerback.