The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.
Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.
Question: Will Ross Cockrell solidify himself as a legitimate starting cornerback for the Steelers in 2016?
Can you imagine how the Steelers’ 2015 season might have turned out had they not stumbled into Ross Cockrell when they had the chance? Well—you probably could, and would have preferred it, because it likely would have meant Brandon Boykin getting on the field after the first game of the season, though it would have meant even more snaps for Antwon Blake.
Nevertheless, the point is that Cockrell was a roster addition on the final cut down day that they added off the scrap heap after the Bills released him during the first wave of cuts who turned out to play a very important role for the Steelers during the season.
After Cortez Allen’s injury took himself out of the cornerback depth chart in the season opener, and Boykin dealt with a groin injury, Cockrell found himself as the third cornerback on the depth chart, replacing Allen as the nickel cornerback who would come in to play the outside cornerback spot.
He was far from flawless, but considering his lack of experience—he was a second-year player with hardly a dozen career snaps—and the fact that he had only been on the team a couple weeks when he was first thrown onto the field, one would have to say that he was a very welcome surprise.
The Steelers quickly offered him an exclusive rights free agent tender upon the conclusion of the season, and right now, one would have to figure that he projects as a 2016 starter opposite William Gay, especially considering Blake’s recently signing with the Titans.
Pittsburgh has had a history of adding cornerbacks to the roster through the waiver system at the end of the preseason, but none of them has had anywhere near the immediate impact or success that Cockrell managed in 2015, recording 44 tackles, two interceptions, 11 passes defensed, a force fumble, and a fumble recovered—plus a critical recovered fumble in the postseason.
That bodes well for his ability to improve fairly significantly with a full offseason in the Steelers’ system, and with their coaching staff. They covet his size and his intelligence to play on the outside, and they gave him plenty of experience to build off of last year. One would expect that he will.