The bad news is we can forget about seeing Josh Norman in a Steelers uniform.
Well, it’s not really news because it’s fairly obvious. The Steelers don’t have nearly enough cap space to sign the free agent cornerback.
The good news is that if a team picking ahead of the Steelers in the 2016 NFL draft signs Norman, it would increase the Steelers’ chances of having an elite cornerback available when they pick at No. 25. Norman’s new team would likely pass on a cornerback in the first round and set off a chain reaction of cornerbacks sliding down the board.
Babies have been born and graduated from high school since the last time the Steelers drafted a cornerback in the first round. They chose Chad Scott with the No. 24 pick in the 1997 draft.
Could this be the year?
If it isn’t, there might be mass protests outside Heinz Field.
The Steelers’ pass defense has gone from first in the NFL in 2011 and 2012 to ninth in 2013 to 27th in 2014 to 30th in 2015. But they don’t necessarily have to draft a cornerback in the first round to fix the problem. They do, however, need to take one somewhere in the early rounds.
These 12 cornerbacks are ranked from best to worst. If Mike Tomlin hasn’t had a phone conversation with at least one of these guys by the time the third round ends on the night of Friday, April 29, the Steelers will have some explaining to do.
Jalen Ramsey of Florida State isn’t on this list because he’s more of a cornerback/safety hybrid, but if he were he’d be No. 1. If he somehow slips to No. 25, the Steelers should run to the podium with his name on the card. But it’s not going to happen.
No. 1: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
Junior, 5’10”, 204 pounds
Hargreaves is a virtual lock to go in the top 10, so the Steelers won’t get him unless they trade up. While the ranking of the rest of the cornerback class is up for debate, Hargreaves is the clear-cut No. 1. He’s a willing tackler in run support and doesn’t give up many yards after the catch. A three-time all-SEC first-teamer and an All-American in 2015, Hargreaves intercepted 10 passes and broke up 27 in three seasons.
No. 2: Eli Apple, Ohio State
Sophomore, 6’1″, 199 pounds
Eli Apple has a little more length than Vernon Hargreaves III, but he’s not as polished. He intercepted three passes and broke up 10 for the national-champion Buckeyes in 2014. He secured the title by intercepting Marcus Mariota in the national championship game. The ball skills are there, but Apple’s tackling skills are a mixed bag and his technique could make him vulnerable to pass interference calls at the next level. He and the Steelers have been linked in multiple mock drafts. If the Steelers draft him, they might have to put up with a few rookie mistakes. But the payoff might be worth it.
No. 3: William Jackson III, Houston
Senior, 6’0″, 189 pounds
William Jackson III is like a sports car that looks really good in the show room. He led the nation with 23 passes defended in 2015 and returned two of his five interceptions for touchdowns. He picked off two passes at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, including one that clinched Houston’s 38-24 win over Florida State. Jackson was third among cornerbacks with a 4.37-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. Jackson isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty tackling but his hits don’t seem to have much impact. He also uses his head a lot. He’ll need to clean that up to avoid penalties and fines in the NFL. Eli Apple seems like a safer pick, but it would be a tough call if the Steelers are on the clock and have to choose between Apple and Jackson. There’s a chance a team picking ahead of them makes the decision for them.
No. 4: Mackensie Alexander, Clemson
Sophomore, 5’10”, 190 pounds
Mackensie Alexander certainly has the confidence that’s required at the cornerback position. At the NFL Scouting Combine he declared himself the best cornerback in the draft. That might seem like a lot of hot air coming from someone who made no interceptions in two years at Clemson. Part of the reason he had no interceptions and just 11 passes defended, however, is that quarterbacks avoided him. According to NFL.com he allowed less than 30 percent of the passes thrown his way to be completed. The potential is there for Alexander to be a shutdown corner in the NFL, but his lack of ball awareness is concerning. Against Florida State he was so focused on the guy he was covering that he didn’t notice Dalvin Cook running for a 75-yard touchdown until it was too late. The Steelers should take Apple or Jackson ahead of Alexander.
No. 5: Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech
Junior, 5’11”, 187 pounds
Kendall Fuller has the NFL in his bloodlines. His brother Kyle is a cornerback for the Bears, his brother Corey is a wide receiver for the Lions and his brother Vincent played safety for seven years with the Titans and Lions. Multiple scouting reports suggest that Kendall is the most talented Fuller brother, and as a freshman he led the ACC with six interceptions and broke up 11 passes. Despite playing through a fractured wrist in 2014, Fuller led the ACC with 13 passes defended. Fuller tore his meniscus before the 2015 season and could only play three games before deciding to have surgery. Fuller’s durability is a concern, but he’s worth a second-round pick.
No. 6: Zack Sanchez, Oklahoma
Junior, 5’11”, 185
Zack Sanchez leads the 2016 draft class with seven interceptions in 2015. One of those picks was the game-winner in a 31-24 overtime win over Tennessee. Sanchez has logged 15 interceptions in three years at Oklahoma. It’s hard not to like Sanchez after seeing the high-impact tackles he makes despite a lack of size that could limit him to nickel back in the NFL. He’ll probably be available to the Steelers in the second round or later. At worst, Sanchez could be a key player on special teams.
No. 7: Xavien Howard, Baylor
Junior, 6’0″, 201 pounds
Xavien Howard has the size and ball skills desired in an NFL cornerback. He intercepted four passes and broke up 13 in 2014 and intercepted five passes and broke up 10 in 2015. His speed is questionable, however. He ran the 40 in 4.58 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine. Only six cornerbacks ran slower. He knocked that time down to 4.45 at his pro day. Howard’s playing style sometimes forces the flags to come out, but that physical nature also helps make him an attractive prospect. Howard might not be a Day 1 starter, but he’s a solid second-round pick and comes with a lot of upside.
No. 8: Sean Davis, Maryland
Senior, 6’1″, 201 pounds
Sean Davis has been a late riser in the pre-draft rankings. He might be listed as a cornerback, but his skill set is better suited to safety. He tackles better than any cornerback projected to go in the early rounds. Davis led the Big Ten with 115 tackles in 2014 and made 313 in 50 games at Maryland. He was second in the NCAA with five forced fumbles in 2015. Not surprisingly, Davis led all cornerbacks with 21 bench-press reps at the NFL Scouting Combine. With Will Allen unsigned and Shamarko Thomas no more than a special teams contributor, the Steelers also have a need at safety. Sean Davis would be a solid third-round pick.
No. 9: Cyrus Jones, Alabama
Senior, 5’10”, 197 pounds
Cyrus Jones fits the profile of Steelers cornerbacks in 2015. On tape it looks like he’s either getting beat or making an interception. He did lead the SEC with 13 passes defended in 2014. He was a receiver as a freshman but moved to defense in 2013 and has seven interceptions in three seasons. He’s penalty-prone and might be best suited to sub-packages in the NFL. His biggest contribution might be as a punt returner with four touchdowns on punt returns in 2015. His character will need to be scrutinized because he was arrested for domestic violence last April but the charges were dropped. Jones is a third-round pick at the earliest, and he’d provide better value if he slips into the late rounds.
No. 10: KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame
Junior, 5’11”, 192 pounds
KeiVarae Russell sat out the 2014 season because of an academic issue and missed the last two games of 2015 with a broken leg. He had five interceptions and 12 pass breakups in the 36 games he did play. Russell seemed to give up a lot of short passes against USC last season, but stepped up in the fourth quarter with an interception and a deflection that a teammate intercepted. The Irish won the game 41-31. Russell can fight through the trash and makes a nice effort as a tackler. He’d be worth a shot for the Steelers in the third round or later.
No. 11: D.J. White, Georgia Tech
Senior, 5’11”, 193 pounds
D.J. White was second among cornerbacks at the NFL Scouting Combine with a 132-inch broad jump, right behind Jalen Ramsey and right in front of Vernon Hargreaves III. While he’s not in the company of those elite defensive backs overall, White is another player who the Steelers could pick up in the third round or later. He intercepted seven passes and broke up 21 in three years at Georgia Tech. He also forced four fumbles. He plays with a clean technique that doesn’t trigger penalties. He’s a little ragged as a tackler, however.
No. 12: Artie Burns, Miami
Junior, 6’0″, 193 pounds
Three mock drafts on NFL.com have Artie Burns going to the Steelers in the first round, but he’s an overrated prospect. Burns led the ACC with six interceptions in 2015. But one came against Bethune-Cookman and another came against Florida Atlantic, not exactly the highest level of competition. He intercepted a pass against Nebraska, but the receiver ran the wrong route on the play. When it comes to tackling, Burns dives at ankles and ball carriers often drag him for a few yards before they go down. Burns would be a major reach in the first round and shouldn’t be considered until Day 3.
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