When the Pittsburgh Steelers set forth their plans for the 2015 NFL Draft, one of their goals was to find defensive backs who had shown the ability to take the ball away. They ended up with three defensive backs who combined for 29 interceptions the year before, with two of them in double digits.
Two days ago, they added Brandon Boykin via trade, a fourth-year cornerback who in just 2013 intercepted six passes on the season. In other words, they actually added a defensive back who has proven himself on this level, which no abstraction or projection necessary to see the results.
Reportedly, the Steelers had inquired about Boykin all the way back during the draft, but either his value dropped or the team stepped up its offer. Either way, the duration of interest paid to him clearly indicates that he is a player, specifically, that the coaching staff valued.
A big part of that value was, of course, his proven ability to take the ball away, which is a quality that the Steelers have been desperately deficient in for the past several seasons, failing to best 11 interceptions since the 2010 season. In recent memory, only Troy Polamalu has had five or more interceptions in a season.
Rookie second-round draft pick Senquez Golson impressively intercepted 10 passes last season, and fourth-round cornerback Doran Grant had five himself on a national championship team. Both of those feats are impressive, but projecting college-level production to the professional level is always a gamble.
Simply drafting cornerbacks who managed to put up interception numbers during college will not automatically translate into a secondary that produces more interceptions. Neither will signing a veteran player who has put up interception numbers in the past guarantee that that production will continue, but the body of evidence suggesting that he can do so is at least there.
For the vast majority of college teams, there are only a handful of players in each game that they play that will ever see a snap on a professional football team. That just goes to show how significant to talent gap is from one level to the next.
With the likes of Golson and Grant, the Steelers managed to acquire intriguing potential through the draft. With the addition of Boykin, the team acquired a known commodity that is ready to contribute via a low-cost trade, so it’s hard to see much of a downside.
Boykin did have only one interception last season, in a bit less playing time the year before, but in his own words, he struggled with an ankle injury for almost the entire season, and has stated that he will play much better this year.
Given the level of uncertainty that exists throughout the secondary for the Steelers this year, it’s hard to imagine that he won’t get playing time. He is a scheme-versatile player to boot, who has experience playing in the Cover-2 system that the team is beginning to more fully integrate into their defense. That he has a six-interception season on his resume against NFL quarterbacks should help him get on the field.