The Pittsburgh Steelers are setting themselves up for a period of exploration in the defensive backfield. Of the defensive backs that they have either retained from last season or signed in unrestricted free agency or the draft, not a single one of them has been on the team for more than two seasons, and the majority of them have not been in the league much longer than that.
While they’ve bolstered the unit with veteran signings in free agency, namely Joe Haden, Morgan Burnett, and to a lesser extent Coty Sensabaugh and Nat Berhe, Pittsburgh is primarily working with a secondary group that is largely just beginning to write their stories as professional athletes.
Starting cornerback Artie Burns and starting safety Sean Davis are both entering their third seasons. Starting slot cornerback Mike Hilton is entering his second season. They just added Terrell Edmunds and Marcus Allen through the draft at safety, while second-year cornerback Cameron Sutton did get onto the field in year one.
And then there’s Brian Allen. Who is Brian Allen? Or more accurately, who is he going to be? That is one of the under-the-radar questions of the group, because he is somebody who, if he can actually develop, could really help to shape the fortunes of the franchise.
Imagine striking gold in the fifth round one a raw cornerback who has all the basic components you would want from the position, just without the experience of actually doing it for very long. That is what got the Steelers to pull the trigger on him last year.
I think we all know his backstory by now, a player who spent all of his football life up until late in his college career playing on the offensive side of the ball. He’s tall, he’s got size, and he can run. All of that is great. Now: can he play cornerback?
Allen did spend a decent amount of time on the field during his rookie season, and that came on special teams as he developed by the end of the year into a starting gunner and jammer on both punt coverage and return units. He also saw sparse reps on the kick coverage unit.
The only snaps we have gotten to look at from him playing cornerback, however, come from the preseason, and to his credit, he didn’t necessarily look lost out there, generally improving with each game.
He even had a pass defensed on a deep target in which he displayed the ability to use his size to his advantage. Hey, if you’re a big defensive back, you might as well play big. But it doesn’t matter if he can compete third-string wide receivers and quarterbacks.
The question is whether or not he will be able to offer the Steelers depth on defense, behind Burns and Haden, perhaps behind Sutton and Sensabaugh. If he is called upon due to injuries or something in that field, will he be trusted to perform? He’ll work to earn that trust this summer after completing his redshirt year.