The Pittsburgh Steelers enter the 2016 offseason with many uncertainties in their secondary. There are currently four cornerbacks under contract, but only two of them have any kind of experience.
Ross Cockrell, Doran Grant, and Senquez Golson are the small list of cornerbacks who make up the Steelers’ depth chart. Cockrell started seven games over the course of the 2015 season, making two interceptions and defending eleven passes. However, Grant and Golson were virtually ineffective in their rookie seasons.
Grant played a total of seventeen snaps after being added to the active roster before the start of week nine, but all but one were played on special teams. Golson was added to the injured/reserve list before the start of the season due to a torn labrum.
You may notice that Cortez Allen was not part of the aforementioned list of cornerbacks on the Steelers’ roster. It is all but certain that Allen will be cut from the Steelers’ roster in 2016 after ending the first two seasons of a four year, $24 million contract on the IR list. When asked if he was confident that Allen still had the ability to be an impact player, head coach Mike Tomlin commented very bluntly with, “I’m not. We’ll see”.
Brandon Boykin, William Gay, and Antwon Blake are all free agents when the new league year begins in early March. Blake could be resigned at a fairly inexpensive rate but, seeing how he performed as a starter last year, not many in Steelers’ Nation are hoping for his return. The two remaining free agents could draw interest from other teams.
Gay, despite being in his early thirties, played extremely well on the outside this year and Boykin could feel his services undervalued after being involved in only 25% of defensive snap counts in the regular season.
Resigning Gay and/or Boykin should be a priority on the Steelers’ free agent to-do list, but the team must also invest in the cornerback position in this year’s draft. Losing their fifth and sixth round selections on trades made for Boykin and kicker Josh Scobee, hurt the Steelers’ plans for the draft this year, so they must get creative when they are on the clock.
Hypothetically, let’s say the Steelers address positions on both offense and defense within the first two rounds of the draft. Offensive tackle Taylor Decker from Ohio State and defensive tackle Maliek Collins from Nebraska. This leaves the Steelers to where they have still not addressed issues in their secondary when they are on the clock in the third round at 89th overall. This would be the perfect time to pick one of the gems in a wide selection of defensive backs available in this year’s draft.
Xavien Howard, defensive back, Baylor.
Measuring in around 6′ 2″ and right at 200 pounds, Howard was a two year starter at the University of Baylor on one of the best defenses in the Big 12 conference. Normally taking on his opponent’s best receiver, Howard is no stranger to handling talented individuals. Big bodied and lengthy, he has great instincts and times his plays on the ball exceptionally well.
Howard recorded 42 total tackles (one for a loss), 5 interceptions, 10 defended passes, and a fumble recovery on his way to earning All Big 12 honors in his final year at Baylor. His career total at the collegiate level ended with 98 tackles (5 for a loss), 10 interceptions, 23 passes defended, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. If he would have finished out his senior year, Howard could have potentially entered the 2017 draft as a first round talent.
In Baylor’s game against Texas Christian University, Howard put his cover corner ability on display for the nation to see. Staying stride for stride with his receiver, the defensive back turns to find the ball in the air and launches himself to make a play on the ball, coming down with a perfect interception. The utilization of height and cover ability make him a player that should be coveted by a Steelers’ team that desperately needs help defending prime receiver talent in the NFL.
Earlier in the year against Iowa State, Howard had yet another excellently executed interception. Keeping to the outside of his opponent, Howard used his speed, which he ran an unofficial 4.48 40 yard dash at Baylor, to battle his receiver to make a play. His arm reach allowed him to keep his opposition at bay, all the while tracking the ball in the air, long enough to have the ball drop right into his hands. Making a quick adjustment after the pick, he was able to return the ball sixteen yards to keep his offense out of the deep end of their own backfield.
With all of his talent, there are a few areas where Howard struggles. He fails to readjust properly when he is double moved at times, which happened on more than a few occasions when he was tasked to cover N.C. Tarheel wide receivers Bug Howard and Mack Hollins in the Russel Athletic Bowl.
He gave up a near 80 yard catch and run score to Hollins at the beginning of the third quarter of the bowl game when he overshot the wide receiver, was unable to recover in time, and did not have the speed to make a touchdown saving tackle.
With so many talented defensive backs such as Vernon Hargreaves III, Kendall Fuller, Mackensie Alexander, William Jackson III, Zack Sanchez, and Artie Burns, it is Howard who is lost in depths of so many potential play makers that the Steelers have the opportunity to make a steal on a defensive back in the third round that could be an early starter in their secondary. Howard is the 12th ranked cornerback prospect on WalterFootball.com.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are in desperate need of a blockbuster cornerback that can be an instant upgrade to their secondary. Xavien Howard displays the size, skill, instincts, and potential to be a top rated cornerback in the NFL for years to come. He is the diamond in the rough player that the organization prides themselves in finding, and could very well become the next great cornerback in The Steel City.