When the Pittsburgh Steelers field their first defense of the 2016 season, they will be able to do so selecting from a pool of defensive backs that are decidedly more talented, or at least higher in pedigree, than that which was available to them through a somewhat tumultuous year in 2015.
Specifically, the Steelers will have at their disposal three young defensive backs selected within the first two rounds of the draft over the course of the past two seasons who have yet to see the field, with two being drafted just a week ago and a third who spent his rookie season last year on injured reserve.
Senquez Golson was selected in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft as a cornerback prospect with intriguing abilities, coming off a season in which he intercepted 10 passes. Another cornerback, Artie Burns, has length and ball skills, which helped him get taken in the first round last week. Safety Sean Davis intercepted three passes and forced five fumbles last year, and that, in conjunction with his skills at corner, got him drafted a round later.
But they all have one particular quality in common: they are completely inexperienced in in-game situations at the NFL level. Add in Ross Cockrell, a third-year player who saw about 60 percent of the team’s defensive snaps last year, and you have quite a bit of youth tied to relative inexperience upon which you are counting to turn over a flagging secondary.
Even Robert Golden, who, if Davis does not start, would be the Steelers’ starting safety at the beginning of the season across from Mike Mitchell, has relatively limited playing experience. He entered the 2015 season with only around 100 total snaps or less in his first three seasons, and had significant playing time last year in four games, with stints as a quarter safety later in the year.
Pittsburgh is very much hoping to build around Mitchell and William Gay, the staple of the defense over the course of the past three seasons as far as the secondary goes. It will be up to these two veterans, and Golden to a lesser extent, to help to get the most out of their young players, most likely especially Golson, who is the young player most likely to contribute immediately.
Assuming an opening-day starting lineup of Gay, Cockrell, Mitchell, and Golden, Golson figures to be the nickel cornerback, presumably lining up in the slot, but no matter which way you slice it, that fifth defensive back is going to be inexperienced.
This is, of course, the inherent downside in relying upon young players, but it is an inevitability at some point, and the Steelers have reached that point now after adding four defensive backs—among them three cornerbacks—within the first four rounds of the past two drafts. They would play at some point in time, and that time is now. And don’t be surprised to see an accelerated course to get them on the field in packages.