Devil’s Advocate: Another Rookie Starter At Cornerback

You may recall for the past several offseasons that I ran an article series called The Optimist’s/Pessimist’s Take. I used it to explore different issues and topics the Pittsburgh Steelers were facing and took a positive or negative approach, examining each side in a separate article. This is essentially the same idea behind that, only condensed into one article for every topic.

In this version of the idea, I’ll be playing the Devil’s Advocate for both sides of the issue, looking at the best-case and worst-case scenarios in trying to find the range of likely outcomes of what is likely to happen for the Steelers relating to whatever topic the article is covering.

When it comes to the process of trying to construct a championship roster, the reality is that there are a ton of moving parts, and several ways to acquire said parts. There are a lot of things that can go right or wrong in not always predictable ways, so I think it’s helpful to try to look at issues by seeking out the boundaries of the likely positive or negative results.

Topic: Could the Steelers find another rookie starting outside cornerback in the 2017 NFL Draft?

It’s not every year that we get to discuss a Steelers draft class and talk about a cornerback drafted in the first round, let alone a cornerback who actually was given the opportunity to make significant contributions during his rookie season, but that is what we got last year in Artie Burns.

The 25th-overall pick in the draft was used right off the bat as a dime defender before shortly inheriting the nickel back role, coming in to play outside. By the second half of the season, he was starting on the outside, and he intercepted three passes from that point on.

Opposite Artie Burns is Ross Cockrell, who entered the 2016 season in his third year, the second with the team, and the first as a full-time starter. He led the team in passes defensed, although he did not record an interception after having two the year before in a less significant role.

What we know is that the Steelers placed an original-round tender on Cockrell as a restricted free agent, rather than a higher tender that would have meant paying him more, but would have offered more protection against somebody signing him.

What we think we know, according to reports, is that the Steelers very seriously made attempts to upgrade the starting cornerback position in free agency, with their name being connected to some of the top to mid-tier players. Davon House was brought in but signed elsewhere. They did sign Coty Sensabaugh.

So what does that really say about what they think of Cockrell?

Not as much as I think some might think. They clearly like him and they believe he can start. He was their best outside cornerback last year, though they anticipate that Burns will surpass him. Cockrell’s heady understanding of the game is not to be overlooked.

But this is also a rich group of cornerbacks in the draft that they probably want to take advantage of, and it could be that the best player available in the first round is at that position. It’s even more likely to be the case in the second round.

It will be difficult for a rookie to unseat a veteran starter who is already somewhat established. But the team is already on record saying they’d like to have more man-to-man flexibility. Ultimately, that may be the most important factor in a rookie cornerback winning a starting job on the outside.

Which side do you lean closer toward?

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