On the eve of the 2019 NFL Draft, the Cincinnati Bengals exercised the fifth-round option on cornerback William Jackson III, their first-round pick from the 2016 NFL Draft. Although he spent his rookie season on injured reserve, Jackson has played at a high level for the past two years and has earned the fifth year of his rookie contract with quality play on the field.
Unfortunately, this provides an appropriate opportunity to reflect on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ own first-round pick from that year, Artie Burns, the cornerback whom they drafted one selection later. Reportedly, Carnell Lake, the Steelers’ defensive backs coach at that time, said that the team was going to draft Jackson had he been available.
Many believe that the Steelers somewhat panicked and reached for the nearest cornerback at that spot. Very few regarded Burns as a possible first-round candidate, a junior out of Miami who was not even an every-snap player during his college career. But he had athleticism and, seemingly, ball skills.
That seemed to show up as a rookie, recording three interceptions, but he had only one in 2017, and he was demoted after two games in 2018, subsequently benched for good a few games later. The Steelers are certainly not going to pick up his fifth-year option, which is due to be decided very soon, and there is a good chance he may not even make the 53-man roster this year.
Meanwhile, Jackson has had a very different career path, becoming one of the bright young cornerbacks in the NFL. Although he actually has only one interception to date in his career, he has posted one of the lowest completion percentages on targets thrown in his coverage and has broken up 27 passes over the past two years.
Because the Steelers have failed to acquire a viable long-term starter with their recent early draft picks at the cornerback position—Senquez Golson in the second round in 2015; Burns in the first round in 2016; Cameron Sutton in the third round in 2017—they have had to resort to spending big money in free agency to fill in the holes.
That started with Joe Haden, who signed a three-year, $27 deal in late August of 2017 the same year the Cleveland Browns released him. this offseason, the Steelers signed Steven Nelson to a three-year, $25.5 million contract. Both of these are the two largest contracts, both in total value and in per-year average, that the team has ever handed out to outside free agents.
Based on their pre-draft interest, Pittsburgh is looking to take another significant swing at the cornerback position, perhaps hoping to land one of Greedy Williams, Byron Murphy, DeAndre Baker, or Rock Ya-Sin.
And if they do add one of those, it greatly decreases the likelihood of Burns being able to hold on to a roster spot during the final year of his rookie contract. As Jackson sets himself up for perhaps a sizable contract extension next offseason. How different would things be if, three years ago, the Steelers drafted one selection earlier?