The vast majority of the Steelers fan base sits with fingers crossed, in hopeful anticipation that the front office will finally fix the achilles heel of this team; the defensive secondary.
Conventional wisdom is that the Steelers organization will address the need for cornerbacks early in the 2016 NFL draft. I have gone on record as saying that I believe Pittsburgh may bring in a free agent cornerback at the right price, but also draft for the future at the position.
Over the past few weeks, I spent a good deal of time…actually WAY too much time reading reviews and breakdowns of college prospects. More importantly, I spent time to look at the game tape of college cornerbacks who have declared for the draft. All this, in order to compile a list of 7 cornerbacks (one per round) that the Steelers could target.
Now, before I get started, let’s be clear on something. As with all drafts, the real talent lies primarily in the first two rounds. It’s there, that the Steelers will probably look for a future starter. Can talent be found in the latter rounds? Yes…but statistically it’s almost as rare to have first round busts like Ryan Leaf and Johnny Manziel then it is to find those rare gems in the later rounds such as Marques Colston and Antonio Brown. Talent tends to rise to the top, and with the proper diligence, most teams can weed out busts or avoid players with red flags. Consequently, teams will take a flyer on players in the last half of the draft who either played against lesser talent then their big school counterparts or who may need a few years to develop.
Let’s look at cornerback prospects in each round of the draft that the Steelers may have interest in.
1st Round: Eli Apple of Ohio State. 6’1 200 pounds.
No surprise here. Apple has been mentioned as a possible draft pick for several weeks now and for good reason. He is a physical corner with above average instincts and has both the size and athleticism that the Steelers desperately need. Game tape shows very good footwork and a fluid back pedal. He will need to be coached up on technique and hand placement but overall seems to put himself in good position to defend the pass. The one flaw that I noticed was a tendency to be off on his timing in run support. As any coach who teaches fundamentals will tell you, one late step can mean a missed tackle. Apple is a two year starter and plays both man and zone coverage equally well.
2nd Round: Artie Burns Of Miami. 6’0 193 pounds
After watching a few games of Artie Burns, I have to admit that I would absolutely love to see Artie Burns in the black and gold. Though not as aggressive as Eli Apple, he appears to have more versatility and better instincts in run support. I think Burns has the higher ceiling for a team that can give him a year or two to come into his own. He has played cornerback and safety and possesses a straight line speed that could make him a terror coming off the edge as a blitzer. The Miami prospect has all the tools that the Steelers should be looking for when drafting a defensive back including both attitude and aptitude. Probably my favorite cornerback prospect in this draft. Don’t be surprised if Burns rises on draft charts or is snatched earlier by a team coveting his potential.
3rd Round: Deiondre’ Hall of Northern Iowa. 6’2 192 pounds
If the draft breaks in such a way that the Steelers don’t pick up a cornerback in the first two rounds, Hall is a player that fans can still be excited about. Hall has excellent size and is both competitive and physical. The 2015 Missouri Valley Defensive Player of the Year has shown versatility in not only playing both safety and cornerback but in returning kicks. In his last two years at Northern Iowa, Hall has used his physical gifts to rack up 11 interceptions. The only knock on him would be his level of competition, and he put most of those doubts to rest with a strong senior bowl week. I did notice a slight hitch his back pedal but he has loose hips and showed good transition into coverage. Don’t be surprised if some NFL team becomes enamored with his size and potential and grabs him in the first two rounds.
4th Round: Zack Sanchez of Oklahoma. 5’11 180 pounds
Zack Sanchez finished the 2015 season with 7 interceptions. He is a ball hawk who will occasionally gamble to make the big play. He may need an NFL coach who pushes position responsibility in order for him to not get burned at the pro level. Listed at just 180 pounds, he will need to take full advantage of an NFL weight regimen to add bulk. A good sign for evaluators is that he has improved in each of his three college seasons. On tape, Sanchez doesn’t seem to be a burner but is obviously technically sound enough to stay in the receivers hip pocket when he isn’t gambling. He is a prospect that will need to prepare diligently for the scouting combine and his pro day, but will probably be a better player than his workout numbers may indicate. A player whose sum is greater than the parts.
5th Round: Michael Jordan of Missouri Western. 6’0 200 pounds
The two-time first-team All-MIAA prospect racked up 138 tackles, 11 interceptions, and 25 pass breakups in just three years. Jordan is an incredibly physical cornerback who also has experience at both safety and cornerback. Fluid player with loose hips but a little upright in his back pedal. The Missouri Western prospect is a quick-twitch athlete with elite change of direction ability. If you watched him at all this year you will notice an undeniable explosive quality and the leaping ability in jump-ball situations that coaches covet. If the Steelers pick up a late round flyer at cornerback, Michael Jordan could be a steal.
6th Round: James Bradberry of Samford. 6’1 209 pounds.
Bradberry has received mixed reviews. Teams love his size and his demeanor but it was painfully obvious in the first couple of practices of the senior bowl, that Bradberry wasn’t used to that level of competition. By the end of the week he had raised his stock and caught the attention of several pro teams who wished to have meetings with him. A four year starter at Samford, he recorded 11 passes broken up and a pair of interceptions in 2015. What I noticed immediately about Bradberry was his ability to jam receivers and throw them off their route. He showed good ball field awareness and above average instincts but isn’t a quick twitch athlete. This actually may work to his advantage because it seemed that he relied more on technique than athleticism. Give him a playbook, a good mentor and a year…and some team could have one heck of a player.
7th Round: Leshaun Sims of Southern Utah. 6’0 200 pounds
As with all late round prospects, the ability to play more than one position is a strength. Sims understands the cornerback and safety position and has the speed to be tried out as a kickoff or punt returner. Has been clocked as fast as 4.41 in the forty yard dash. He is a cerebral player who comes across as hungry and determined to succeed. Good footwork and a very smooth transition. Mirrors well in man coverage. I did notice some lack of awareness in run support and perhaps not as aggressive as some of the other prospects. Not a wrap up tackler and has a few technique issues that can be worked out. Definitely a player on the rise.
All these players “fit” into what Pittsburgh traditionally looks for in the defensive backfield, with the added bonus of having the size that they are now lacking at cornerback. As with any draft, the front office will be looking for starters, developmental prospects, and wave players to make the Steelers competitive.
Draft sites and draft pundits may have these same players rated in different rounds, but this is where they land on my draft board as of now. As prospects go through the process leading up to the 2016 draft, you can be assured that some players will fall and others will rise based on interviews, performance and team needs.
For those of you who stay informed, what are your thoughts on these prospects and who would you personally like to see wear a Steelers jersey next season? Throw some names my way.