Many a shoe was thrown against a wall Thursday night when the Pittsburgh Steelers passed on cornerback Darqueze Dennard and chose Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.
And when Dennard went to the hated Cincinnati Bengals at 24, those shoe-chucking Steelers fans threw their other shoe against the wall.
Ike Taylor just turned 34 and is on the decline, and there’s little depth behind Cortez Allen and William Gay. The Steelers were 28th in the NFL with 20 takeaways last season. They also had 20 takeaways in 2012 and were 25th in the league. In 2011, they were last with 15 takeaways. No Steelers cornerback has intercepted more than two passes in a season since Taylor intercepted three in 2007.
Cornerback appeared to be the Steelers’ top need in the draft. Instead, the Steelers bolstered their inside linebacker corps. That was another need in this draft, but few expected the Steelers to fill it in the first round.
Fans clamoring for a cornerback will have to stay up late on Day 2 of the draft if they want to see the Steelers take one, because none of the corners left are worth taking with the 14th pick in the second round. Dennard, Justin Gilbert, Kyle Fuller, Jason Verrett and Bradley Roby are all off the board. After the top five, there’s a Duquesne Incline-like drop-off.
With the No. 46 overall pick, the Steelers would be better off adding much-needed bodies on the defensive line with a player like Louis Nix or Stephon Tuitt, both from Notre Dame. Or they could answer Ben Roethlisberger’s personal ad for a tall wide receiver and take Penn State’s Allen Robinson or Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews, both 6’3″.
As far as cornerbacks go, don’t expect the Steelers to take one any earlier than the third round. Barring a trade, they have the 33rd pick in the third round, No. 97 overall. It’s a compensatory pick, so they can’t trade it for an earlier pick.
It’s going to be a long wait. The Steelers might even sleep on it and pick a corner on Day 3, but at the end of the tunnel are these cornerback prospects, ranked in order with information from NFL Draft Scout, NFL.com and Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
1. Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska
281 218 pounds)
The NFL is moving toward bigger cornerbacks. Jean-Baptiste intercepted seven passes and broke up 25 in three years at Nebraska. On top of his height, he was the top vertical-leaper at the NFL Scouting Combine, clearing 41 feet, 5 inches. Despite his size, however, he’s not always physical. He’ll be 24 years old next season. GRADE: 3rd round
2. Bashaud Breeland, Clemson
(Jr., 5’11, 197 pounds)
Breeland’s strength is zone coverage, and he’s willing to step up in run support even if he isn’t the surest tackler. He intercepted four passes and broke up 20 passes in college. Breeland ran a slow (4.62) 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, but he seems like a high-character guy who will get the most out of his ability. GRADE: 3rd round
3. Pierre Desir, Lindenwood
(Sr., 6’1″, 198 pounds)
It’s been 10 years since the Steelers drafted a Division II player. If they do call Desir’s name, they’ll expect him to turn out better than former second-round pick Ricardo Colclough, also a cornerback. A native of Haiti, Desir intercepted 13 passes and recorded 17 passes defended over the past two seasons. He’s also strong in zone coverage. GRADE: 3rd round
4. Phillip Gaines, Rice
(Sr., 6’0″, 193 pounds)
Gaines broke up 38 passes at Rice and was second among cornerbacks in the 40-yard dash (4.38) and the three-cone drill (6.63) at the NFL Scouting Combine. He’s a zone guy, so he’d be a scheme fit with the Steelers. But he’s weak against the run and can’t do much on special teams. GRADE: 3rd round
5. Rashaad Reynolds, Oregon State
(Sr., 5’10”, 189 pounds)
Reynolds increased his interceptions in each of the last three years, going from one in 2011 to three in 2012 to six last season. He has 29 pass breakups in college, including 16 in 2012. Reynolds is experienced in both zone and man coverage and was tied for second among cornerbacks at the NFL Scouting Combine with 22 reps in the bench press. GRADE: 3rd round
6. Keith McGill, Utah
(Sr., 6’3″, 211 pounds)
McGill’s size, as well as his 39-inch vertical leap and 10-foot, 9-inch broad jump (second among cornerbacks at the NFL Scouting Combine), make him enticing. He missed the 2012 season with a shoulder injury, but came back in 2013 and broke up 12 passes. On the down side, McGill’s already 25, he’s soft physically and was the slowest corner in the three-cone drill (7.29 seconds) at the combine. GRADE: 4th round
7. Jaylen Watkins, Florida
(Sr., 6’0″, 194 pounds)
Watkins wasn’t able to consistently hold down a starting job at Florida, but he would bring versatility to Pittsburgh with his ability to play safety. He picked off three passes for the Gators, all in 2012, and broke up 24 in his career. He was one of just two cornerbacks to bench press 225 pounds 22 times at the NFL Scouting Combine. GRADE: 4th round
8. Marcus Roberson, Florida
(Jr., 6’0″, 191 pounds)
After intercepting two passes, breaking up 14 and forcing a fumble in 2012, Roberson missed five games last season and had just three pass breakups. He’s been dogged by knee and ankle injuries, which is why he’s ranked behind his teammate. There also are some minor character red flags and he ran just 4.61 in the 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine. GRADE: 4th round
9. Ross Cockrell, Duke
(Sr., 6’0″, 191)
Cockrell led the ACC with five interceptions in 2012 and had 12 interceptions at Duke. He’s eighth all-time on the NCAA career list with 50 passes defended. He made the game-clinching interception at the East-West Shrine Game, but his arms are shorter than 30 inches and he’s not very physical. He doesn’t exactly come from a football hotbed, either. GRADE: 4th round
10. Dontae Johnson, N.C. State
(Sr., 6’2″, 200 pounds)
Johnson is another prospect who could bring a little size to the Steelers’ stable of cornerbacks. He can stay with tight ends in coverage and also has played safety and would be useful on special teams. GRADE: 6th round
11. Kendall James, Maine
(Sr., 5’11”, 180 pounds)
James would be the first Steeler who played at the University of Maine since Justin Strzelczyk. He played at the FCS level, but is intriguing because of his 39-inch vertical leap. However, his arms are shorter than 30 inches and he only has 8-inch hands. Grade: 6th round or later.