Lost in all the talk of the Steelers needing to draft a corner is the myth that these corners do not get the chance to contribute in their rookie season in a Dick LeBeau defense. Although several rookie corners drafted by Steelers since 2004 have seen the field in their first season on defense, their biggest roles have come mostly on special teams, sub-packages and reserve roles. While it is not out the notion they see snaps on defense their rookie year, most do indeed take time to flourish before actually developing nicely and landing a starting role or contributing heavily. Below we will look at the path of the young corners since LeBeau returned in 2004 to take back over the defense.
Ike Taylor was a 4th round pick drafted in 2003, a year before LeBeau returned. Although he saw snaps in his first and second season, it wasn\’t until 2005 until he cracked the starting lineup for the Steelers as he started 15 games and four playoff contests in his 3rd year in a Steelers uniform. Most of his contributions in his first two seasons came as a kick returner and on special teams coverage units. In 2006 Taylor played in all 16 games and made 11 starts. From 2007 on, Ike has been a starter at cornerback for the Steelers.
In 2004, LeBeau\’s first year back with the Steelers as the defensive coordinator, rookie 2nd round draft pick Ricardo Colclough was forced onto the field early in his rookie season when Chad Scott was injured, but mostly played a reserve role throughout the rest of his rookie year along with his contributions on special teams. Admittedly Colclough was over his head and did not perform very well. In 2005 Colclough once again played only a reserve role and missed quite a bit of time due to injury. Once again most of the contributions that Colclough made in 2005 came on special teams. In 2006 he played in the first three games before suffering a season-ending injury and was lost for the season. Colclough was subsequently released in the early part of the 2007 after appearing in just three games.
In 2005 the Steelers drafted Bryant McFadden in the second round out of Florida State and was instantly inactive for the first four games of the year until seeing action in the final 12 regular-season games and all four postseason games. McFadden, like Colclough, saw the field mostly as an extra defensive back and contributed on special teams. He was effective in the nickel role, especially late in the season as the Steelers went on to win Super Bowl XL that season. In 2006 and 2007 McFadden saw his snaps increase and played in all 16 games, starting 9 in 2006 and played in 13 games mostly as a reserve defensive back and special teams contributor in 2007. 2008 was an injury riddled season for McFadden as he only saw time in 10 games, but was the starter in 8 of them mostly at the left corner position. He was very ineffective after returning from his injury, but did play well in his first 5 starts that year. McFadden spent one season with the Cardinals in 2009 and returned to the Steelers last season, but was average at best. He also missed quite a bit of snaps due to injury last season along the way.
In 2007 the Steelers drafted William Gay with their second of two 5th round picks and like the young corners before him mostly contributed on special teams his rookie year. Gay played in all 16 games as a rookie as well as the AFC Wild Card Game against Jacksonville as a reserve DB and special teams contributor. In his second season, Gay played in all 16 regular-season games for the second consecutive season, making four starts, all of which came in the later part of the season. He continued to also be a heavy contributor on special teams. When McFadden left via free agency after the 2008 season, Gay became the starter opposite Taylor in 2009. After an above average start to the season, Gay struggled from week 6 on and was relegated to the nickel role in the final two games of the year. When McFadden returned last season to start outside, Gay was moved back to his nickel role where he saw most of snaps in 2010. He did move back outside when McFadden left several games due to injury. Gay saw his snaps fall in 2010 to just under 750 for the season, a decrease of over 150 from 2009.
In 2009 the Steelers drafted cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett in the 3rd and 5th rounds. Lewis played in just four games his rookie season before being placed on injured reserve list with a back injury and all of his on field action came on special teams. In 2010 Lewis saw most of his defensive snaps late in blow-out wins with the rest of his playing time coming on special teams. He has struggled to turn the corner as he enters his 3rd season and has only been on the field for just over 40 defensive snaps since he was drafted. Like the other young corners before him, Burnett started out his rookie season as a special teams contributor and did not see snaps on the defensive side of the ball until week 13 of his rookie year. He played just under 50 snaps as a rookie and looked lost at times in the secondary. He was gone as quick as he arrived as he was released prior to the start of the 2010 season.
The Steelers drafted yet another cornerback in 2010 as Crezdon Butler was drafted in the 5th round. Butler was inactive for most of his rookie season and only contributed on special teams when he did finally get to dress for 4 games. He did not have a regular season defensive snap last year.
The Steelers like their early round draft picks to contribute as soon as possible, but if they draft a corner in the first few rounds next week, one should not expect too much from them as a rookie outside of being a special teams contributor. Baring injury of course, the Steelers take their time developing young corners as the LeBeau system is not easy to master for any young defensive player, let alone a young cornerback. Even if Taylor and Gay leave via free agency, the Steelers would likely give Lewis and Butler every chance at grabbing a starting spot before thrusting a rookie into action. It would be surprising to see any corner drafted next week get any defensive snaps until the mid-way point in the season and it likely would come in a small nickel or dime role as well. Taking all of this into account and where the Steelers pick in round one, it is making more sense that they might address the offensive or defensive line in round 1 instead of drafting a corner in the first round. These two positions have a much better chance at contributing often and early than a young cornerback does and let\’s face it, none of these top rated cornerbacks are can\’t miss like Darrelle Revis was quite a few years ago. Oh, what might have been.