The Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t the only team that passed on Richard Sherman in the 2011 NFL Draft. However, that’s not the only mistake they’ve made when it comes to drafting cornerbacks since Mike Tomlin became head coach in 2007.
As Sherman would say, their cornerback crop during that time has been “mediocre.” It’s been a factor in the erosion of a defense that allowed 11 plays of 50 or more yards last season.
Of the eight cornerbacks drafted since Tomlin joined forces with Kevin Colbert, five never started a game.
Joe Burnett, taken in the fifth round in 2009, lasted just one season in Pittsburgh and didn’t break up a pass. He’s best known for dropping a Bruce Gradkowski interception that would have sealed a win over the Raiders in the midst of the Steelers’ five-game losing streak.
The Steelers chose Burnett over Jason McCourty and Captain Munnerlyn.
Crezdon Butler, a fifth-rounder in 2010, never played on defense in his only season with the Steelers. He played for his fifth team in 2013 and still hasn’t broken up a pass in his career.
At least Curtis Brown, the Steelers’ third-round pick in 2011, had two passes defended to his credit in 2012. But he never developed as a cornerback and the Steelers released him in March.
Neither Terrence Frederick (seventh round, 2012) nor Terry Hawthorne (fifth round, 2013) made it out of Steelers training camp.
Even the cornerbacks who haven’t been busts have had mixed success.
William Gay, the Steelers’ fifth-rounder in 2007, had his best season as a Steeler in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). But he’s had a roller-coaster career and the Steelers didn’t think enough of him to keep him from going to Arizona for a year.
Keenan Lewis, drafted in the third round in 2009, was second in the NFL with 23 passes defended in 2012, but that was his fourth season. By then, the Steelers were grooming Cortez Allen to take his place and regrettably didn’t make an effort to re-sign him.
Chosen in the fourth round in 2011, Allen had a promising 2012 but an up-and-down 2013. He started eight games last season and is still an unfinished product. Still on the board when Allen was drafted were Sherman and his teammate Byron Maxwell as well as Buster Skrine, who broke up 18 passes and started 15 games for the Browns last season.
The Steelers’ evaluation of cornerbacks must improve this year, especially since they need to draft one in the early rounds.
Ike Taylor turns 34 three days before the draft and started to show his age last season. Gay hasn’t put together two straight seasons as a regular starter in Pittsburgh. Allen has yet to establish himself as a true shutdown corner.
The Steelers haven’t taken a cornerback in the first two rounds since they took Bryant McFadden in the second round in 2005. The last cornerback they chose in the first round was Chad Scott in 1997, three years before Colbert began running the Steelers’ draft.
The tandem of Colbert and Bill Cowher drafted five cornerbacks between 2000 and 2006. There was some deadwood there, too, especially second-round bust Ricardo Colclough in 2004. But the decision to draft Taylor in the fourth round in 2003 made the mistakes forgivable.
Now it’s time to find Taylor’s successor. The Steelers always have had a transcendent cornerback presence during the most successful periods in their history. Mel Blount helped them win four Super Bowls in the 1970s. Rod Woodson was part of five straight playoff teams in the 1990s. Taylor has two rings.
The Steelers presumably have been hard at work studying Justin Gilbert, Darqueze Dennard and Kyle Fuller as first-round prospects in the 2014 draft and Jason Verrett, Bradley Roby, Lamarcus Joyner, Phillip Gaines and Marcus Roberson as possible second-round picks.
After all that mid-to-late-round riff-raff of recent years, perhaps the Steelers will have better luck with a cornerback in the early rounds. They can’t afford to miss this time.