Steelers still have a need for a starting cornerback after the NFL Draft

Steven Nelson #22 of the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)
Steven Nelson #22 of the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images) /

The Steelers lost two quality cornerbacks this offseason, and they could really use some help at the position in 2021. 

It was no surprise to see the Steelers load up on offense in the 2021 NFL Draft. Pittsburgh was dismal on the offensive side of the ball last year as the team ranked dead last in rushing and Ben Roethlisberger fell apart late in the season. Still, I’m shocked that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert ignored addressing the cornerback position until the seventh round of the draft.

After a solid performance by the second in 2020 (albeit, against an easy quarterback schedule), the Steelers lost starting right cornerback Steven Nelson and nickel cornerback Mike Hilton this offseason. This left them with razor-thin depth at the position. Joe Haden will assume his role as the starting left cornerback this year, and Cameron Sutton will likely see much more action outside the hashes this season. However, after these two, there isn’t a quality backup on this roster that has yet to prove themselves in this league.

Trevor Williams was acquired this offseason, but the 27-year-old veteran has dressed for just 4 games over the past two seasons, and he hasn’t seen any meaningful game action since 2018. Meanwhile, Justin Layne was a developmental project who just hasn’t quite panned out, and he was arrested prior to the NFL Draft.

Of the group, former undrafted free agent, James Pierre, might have the best chance of carving out a role in 2021. But can we trust him with such a great responsibility? After all, he has just 27 career defensive snaps under his belt.

In a year with very good depth at the cornerback position in the NFL Draft, Pittsburgh failed to take advantage. Instead, they elected to draft four-straight offensive players to begin the draft. This is the first time they have done this since 1984. The Steelers addressed cornerback so late in the draft by taking Oklahoma’s Tre Norwood, that he probably doesn’t stand a great chance of making the team.

In addition, they brought in two other undrafted corners in Michigan State’s Shakur Brown and Duke’s Mark Gilbert. All three rookies clearly have an uphill battle for a roster spot – even with two departing cornerbacks this year. With so many inexperienced players on the roster in a closing Super Bowl window, do the Steelers need a veteran who can come in and start now?

Steelers may need veteran help at CB

Because the Steelers are building a roster that can help them win in what could very well be Ben Roethlisberger’s final year, they need to take the appropriate steps to make sure they don’t have any major holes on their roster. It would be unwise of them to count on a completely unproven player like James Pierre or Justin Layne to fill this role, and they could use another veteran presence.

There is both good and bad news here. The good news is that signing a player at this point doesn’t hurt Pittsburgh’s compensatory formula for next season. The bad news is that there is only so much money to work with.

At the moment, the Steelers have roughly $10.2 million in salary-cap space, according to Over the Cap. However, approximately $6 million of this will be devoted to signing their rookie draft class. This leaves Pittsburgh with about $4 million in remaining cap space, and the team will want to hand onto this in the event of in-season injuries.

To be honest, the Steelers can’t afford to spend much of anything right now without another extension or restructure, and they’ve done most of what they could. Still, there are some quality cornerbacks who haven’t been claimed yet who could possibly join on a reasonable deal.

Another option the Steelers could explore would be to sign a cornerback to a multi-year deal and lower their first-year cap hit to keep expenses down this year. But even this may require them to make additional roster moves. Some of the top names still available in free agency include Casey Heyward, Richard Sherman, D.J. Hayden, and Josh Gordon. All of these players are in their 30’s and Pittsburgh may be able to obtain one of them at a reasonable cost. Steven Nelson is also still on the market… Just saying.

light. Related Story. 3 Steelers players that benefited the most from the 2021 draft class

Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton are both quality players, but the depth behind them is concerning. It will be interesting to see if the Steelers take any steps to work towards signing a veteran cornerback who can play starter snaps of them this year.