If for some reason you ready every single thing I write, every day, in order, then you are already aware of the fact that I earlier contended that Pittsburgh Steelers college free agent cornerback Trajan Bandy’s stock is down right now in light of the inevitability of a limited warm-up period to the regular season, which will consist primarily of ‘football in shorts’, and perhaps no preseason at all.
One of the big reasons for this is because the Steelers are already secure in their position. in fact, Pro Football Focus argues that Pittsburgh has one of the best starting cornerback trios in the entire NFL. In a recent article earlier this month, they listed the triplets of Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, and Mike Hilton as the fifth-best such group on any NFL team. Solomon Wilcots writes:
The Pittsburgh Steelers earned the NFL’s fifth-best team coverage grade (90.0) a season ago. And Steven Nelson (80.3, 7th), Mike Hilton (74.2, 18th) and Joe Haden (71.3, 25th) all finished on PFF’s list of the top 25 cornerbacks of the 2019 regular season.
Nelson remains the Steelers’ highest-graded corner in single-man coverage (73.4, 9th), where his patience at the line of scrimmage prevented wide receivers from gaining a free release when looking to gain easy access downfield. Out of 115 qualifiers, Nelson ranked 24th among cornerbacks with a 15.4% forced incompletion rate, and Haden finished 26th among that same group with a rate of 15.2%. Haden also posted a top-20 coverage grade (75.8, 19th) on plays that saw him line up on the outside.
On the inside, Mike Hilton has settled in as the Steelers’ top slot defender, and he allowed only 19 first-down receptions on 314 slot coverage snaps last season. He has an excellent feel for the position where he matches up perfectly to intermediate combination routes, and that’s a big reason why he ended the regular season with a 73.5 slot coverage grade, 12th among 47 qualifying players at the position.
The only four teams who were graded ahead of the Steelers were the New England Patriots, the San Francisco 49ers, , the Green Bay Packers, and the Baltimore Ravens, who were surprisingly only one spot ahead of Pittsburgh, despite having both Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey, with Tavon Young returning from injury.
It was borderline unthinkable even a year ago that Pittsburgh would be in the conversation to crack the top half of the league in this measurement, let along the top five, but here we are. It does help that the Steelers’ defense as a whole has improved, but so has the cornerback position specifically within that defense.
Both Haden and Hilton had their best seasons as Steelers last year, and Nelson was a big free agent signing in 2019. A number of different outlets have identified him as the most underrated or overlooked player on the team. He has the opportunity to change that in 2020 by making more people aware of him.