For as much as the Pittsburgh Steelers scouting department may have been criticized in recent years for their struggles to find quality players through the draft in the secondary—a wrong they hope to make right with three defensive backs in the first two rounds since 2015—general manager Kevin Colbert revealed early this offseason that they hold cornerbacks to a high standard, and it really boils down to one question.
That question: can they cover Antonio Brown? Brown is, of course, the Steelers’ seventh-year wide receiver and a three-time All-Pro in consecutive seasons, having led or been near the top of most major receiving categories in that span of time while generally bettering his numbers each year.
As tough as that evaluation might be—and the Steelers seem to believe they may have found one in the first round with Artie Burns—Brown is holding Burns to an even higher standard, according to NFL Network reporter Aditi Kinkhabwala.
She attended the Steelers’ last minicamp sessions on Thursday and talked to Brown, discussing Burns and his development. A lot has been made about the importance of putting Burns on a receiver of his quality, something that defensive coordinator Keith Butler said that they would attempt to do as much as possible.
Brown told Kinkhabwala that it’s not just about him making Burns better. He said, “he has to make me better” as well. Talk about your tall tasks, considering the sort of player that the former sixth-round draft pick has proven himself to be over the course of his career.
Of course, in principle, Burns should develop into the best cornerback that Brown has ever faced in practice with the Steelers. He is the only cornerback that the team has taken in the first round not just in Brown’s tenure, but in the 16-year career of Colbert in Pittsburgh.
No doubt the best cornerback he has gone up against thus far is Ike Taylor, who was still quite a player during Brown’s first couple of years in the league. William Gay is currently the Steelers’ top cornerback. Brown helped Ross Cockrell mature last year from going one-on-one with him a lot.
I’m not so sure, however, that Cockrell helped Brown improve a great deal. Perhaps Burns, in time, can really develop into that quality counterpoint that will lead to continuous, highly contested snaps during practice that once led to Brown and Taylor nearly coming to blows.
Of course, that’s a rather lofty goal for the rookie, especially considering that he is a young player still fairly raw and learning the position, even if he has shown ball skills last year in college, and obviously has the talent to develop.
Burns is a six-foot cornerback with a growing frame and strong speed. And obviously working with Brown will make him better. That will have a cyclical effect by giving Brown a better defender to go up against—hopefully, eventually, one that will sharpen his skills even further.