This is not the first time during his tenure with the Pittsburgh Steelers that the team has given a couple of cornerbacks to play with via the draft, but defensive backs coach Carnell Lake is hoping that things go more smoothly than they did the first two times.
When he was first brought in for the 2011 season as a novice coach, the Steelers drafted Curtis Brown in the third round and Cortez Allen in the fourth. Brown became a very good gunner on special teams, but I’m not sure if he ever even played a defensive snap in a meaningful game.
As for Allen, it would be unfair to say that he was a bad pick. By any reasonable rubric he probably outperformed his draft stock, and the Steelers got a few good years out of him before injuries began to mount, and he seemed to develop the yips as well. But the bottom line is that they signed him to a contract that they lived to regret.
Five years later, the Steelers took Senquez Golson in the second round and doubled down in the fourth round with Doran Grant. The latter spent about half of the season on the roster, contributing sparsely on special teams, and didn’t make the roster the next year. Golson…well, you know. Hopefully this is the year the story changes.
But Lake doesn’t want to set any lofty goals for his two new cornerbacks this year, the polished third-rounder Cameron Sutton and the raw fifth-rounder, Brian Allen. “I just want to see them improving every day, especially for the younger guys”, he told Missi Matthews recently in a sit-down interview on the practice field during OTAs.
“We got the two [rookies] this year, and they are improving”, he said. “Every day they’re getting better and better, they’re getting more understanding, and we want to take that understanding and that momentum and take it right into training camp”.
It’s not easy being a rookie, particularly one that isn’t a premium pick that is predestined for a significant role. Artie Burns, for example, last year got early reps in part due to his pedigree and in part due to lack of depth. That’s not the case for these rookies.
“For the rookie minicamp, we throw a lot at them in a very short amount of time”, Lake told Matthews. “They have a lot of reps that they get because there’s not a lot of bodies out there. And then when the veterans come in they have to take a back seat. They don’t get many reps, and they kind of have to watch to get their experience”.
Early OTA reports have had Sutton and Allen working with the third-team secondary, or possibly even the fourth-team, for the majority of the time, as evidence of that point. The veterans, even minor veterans, get initial priority. But that can change over time.
“You go from 0 to 100 in rookie minicamp, back to 0 almost”, Lake said, but “as time goes on and the numbers thin out in training camp, the ones that continue with us, they’ll start to get more reps. It is a struggle, “but they just have to hang in there until that time”.