There’s a sound case to put forth that the Pittsburgh Steelers could have played in the AFC Championship Game had the secondary been addressed last offseason. In spite of all of the injuries suffered offensively, the Steelers may have been able to weather the storm had they not boasted one of the league’s worst secondaries in 2015.
This season will always be remembered as the season of “what-ifs”. What if Maurkice Pouncey does not fracture his fibia in the preseason against the Green Bay Packers? What if Le’Veon Bell doesn’t go down against the Cincinnati Bengals? What if Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t get injured against the St. Louis Rams? What if Antonio Brown does not suffer a head injury at the end of the Bengals game (there’s a theme here with the Bengals) and plays against the Denver Broncos? The possibilities are maddening for an offense that had the ability to shatter offensive records. Brown registered over 130 catches and 1800 yards receiving without his Canton-bound quarterback for a quarter of the season. Roethlisberger almost hit 4000 passing yards despite only playing in and finishing 10 full games this season.
All of this may not have mattered if the secondary had been addressed.
Much-maligned cornerback Antwon Blake suffered the brunt of the criticism, and rightfully so. Blake was downright dreadful at times this season. Cornerbacks William Gay and Ross Cockrell were serviceable and had moments of brilliance, particularly Gay. Gay seemed to be the steady force in the secondary throughout the season. Brandon Boykin, the man, the myth and the legend, saw his snaps increase significantly in the last few weeks of the season. In fact, Boykin played all but 10 defensive snaps against the Broncos in the Divisional playoff round. After fans had clamored for him to play all season long, Boykin performed well when given the opportunity. It remains unclear why Mike Tomlin refused to play him early in the season.
The defensive secondary, as it currently stands, is an absolute mess. The only cornerbacks currently under contract are Cortez Allen, Doran Grant and Senquez Golson. The trio amassed 33 defensive snaps, or about 3% of the total defensive snaps for the team. Allen eventually landed on IR with an ‘injury’. When asked if Tomlin believes if Allen can still be a playmaker for this defense, he responded, “No. We’ll see.”.
Not exactly hope inspiring, coach. Especially when Cortez Allen is now ‘cuttable’, because his dead money hit of $4.05M is less than his cap hit of $5.75M. This means the Steelers can save $1.7M by cutting him and just be responsible for paying the $4.05M of remaining signing bonus.
That being said, there are a number of ways to properly address the secondary this offseason. Unfortunately for the Steelers, many of the options include making incredibly tough decisions on current personnel. Stalwarts on this team and names that are instantly recognizable to fans may be released in favor of fixing what may be the only weakness on the team. As it stands today, the Steelers only have about $6.7M of cap space for 2016 and will need to free up some more (although the 2016 salary cap will presumably increase, too).
The crop of free agent defensive backs this season appears to be better than most on the surface, but when digging deeper, there doesn’t appear to be an answer at corner. At least to the Steelers. There isn’t a Darrelle Revis available, but there is a player that brings plenty of intrigue and talent to a Steelers’ secondary that desperately needs it.
FS/SS ERIC WEDDLE
Safety Eric Weddle has been overshadowed for much of his career by more recognizable names, such as Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu. For years, however, Weddle was an exceptional safety in a San Diego Chargers secondary that lacked both talent and depth. Weddle’s ability and play in the box makes him an attractive option for a Steelers’ secondary that does not currently have an NFL-quality strong safety on its roster. There has been much debate about where the Steelers cap should be allocated, and the agreed upon position appears to be cornerback. The cornerback market this year brings intrigue, but the best name on the market is Los Angeles Rams corner Trumaine Johnson, who the Rams are likely to keep on long term.
The cornerback market isn’t going to provide a top flight cornerback that the Steelers seemingly desperately need. It can, however, provide the Steelers with a necessary infusion of talent into the safety position, something that has been lacking greatly since before Polamalu’s obvious decline in play.
Bringing in Weddle may not be enough, however. The Steelers need to retain one of their own impending free agents in Boykin. Keeping Boykin on the roster may be priority #1 for this team. There have been questions about whether or not he has any interest in staying, and while these questions are valid, if the coaching staff decides to let him compete for a starting role on the boundary, there is no reason for Boykin to have any hesitations about this team whatsoever. Moreover, Boykin has expressed interest, at least publicly, in staying on the team. If this was anything more than smoke, the front office cannot allow him to head for another secondary. His play on the field and particularly in the playoffs had fans and media alike scratching their heads as to why he was not an integral part of the secondary from the beginning. Letting him walk away would put the secondary in further turmoil.
Retaining Boykin may come at a cost, however. Gay likely has no place in the secondary if Boykin returns. It’s a numbers game, and more than just the numbers of the cap. The Steelers operate extensively out of their Nickel package which puts three cornerbacks on the field. Sophomore Senquez Golson is going to be expected to produce in his second year as a key player on this defense as a Nickel cornerback.
It’s officially the Steelers’ offseason, which means it’s never too early to start discussing the draft and the possible defensive backs in the draft class.
The Steelers aren’t going to draft a cornerback in the first two rounds of the 2016 NFL draft. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but those are just the facts.
As I see them, at any rate.
Look, after Vernon Hargreaves, Jalen Ramsy and Mackensie Alexander (and not in that order, either), the cornerback draft class takes a pretty significant nose dive. The class is deep in talent, yes, but the truly elite corners in this draft class will all be gone by pick 10. The depth of the class is intriguing, but after those three, there isn’t a cornerback worth taking with the 25th overall selection. This isn’t going to be a popular opinion, particularly because Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple continues picking up traction and is consistently connected to the Steelers in the first round. There will be better players available on the board when the time comes, and Apple will be gone by the second round.
It’s not what Steelers fans would like to hear, but it remains a reality all the same. The secondary, at least in 2016, is not going to be fixed in the draft. In fact, I would be absolutely floored if the Steelers took a cornerback with their first three picks in the draft. A mid-round corner, likely a project pick, in the fourth round seems more likely at this point. Again, it’s a simple mathematics game of who they bring into camp.
SO THAT LEAVES US WITH …
Essentially, it boils down to this as the 2016 Steelers secondary:
Free safety: Mike Mitchell
Strong safety: Eric Weddle
Starting cornerback: Brandon Boykin
Starting cornerback: Ross Cockrell
Nickel cornerback: Senquez Golson
Dime cornerback: Doran Grant
There may be additional bodies in camp, but that’s your starting secondary for the 2016 season. They could, and have, done a lot worse than this. There remains glaring flaws with the rotation and there is a reliance on unproven players, but it is without a doubt a major step from what the Steelers trotted out onto the field in 2015. This, in combination with the draft, provides a stable secondary capable of generating turnovers and eliminating explosive plays.
The most glaring flaw is the lack of a “true free safety”. Safety Mike Mitchell appears to be more of a strong safety that can play adequately in zone coverage and lay the wood in the box. Weddle is a very similar player, but provides more stable coverage ability when playing 2-deep coverage.
This secondary also opens up intriguing possibilities when sending pressure, particularly when operating out of their Okie formation. That, however, will be examined in depth in another article this week.
It’s officially draft season. Expect in-depth articles about all of the prospects the Steelers will likely have interest in this coming April.