The Pittsburgh Steelers tried and failed for years to acquire talent at the cornerback position to bring them into the modern era of passing defense in the NFL. their old model of searching for zone cornerbacks who play with their eyes to the ball and tackle against the run as a priority was no longer working, and it took some time for them to reorient their draft profile.
In fact, one could easily make the argument that they still haven’t properly reoriented themselves. While Cameron Sutton has turned out to be a talent, Justin Layne is still in a probationary period in his second year. They have had to, instead, resort to free agency, but it has proven effective.
They finally landed on the right combination in 2019, with Joe Haden in his third season with the team, and Steven Nelson being brought in via free agency last year. Haden had his best season with the Steelers last season, recording five interceptions and making the Pro Bowl as an alternate. While Nelson didn’t make many splash plays, he proved to be a very capable coverage cornerback who was arguably even the better of the two.
As they head into their second season, head coach Mike Tomlin appreciates what they brought to the table. “They’re a quality veteran tandem, and not only that, resting on their resumes, they’ve had good training camp processes, both guys”, he said.
“Both guys came in in great condition, both guys have performed at a consistent high level throughout this process. That’s where I find my comfort, not necessarily what’s been done in the past or in their presents, but the things that they’ve done since we’ve begun this process”.
In other words, it wasn’t a fluke, or a one-year phenomenon. Haden and Nelson are their tandem and they are giving every indication that they should be just as strong a pair again in 2020 as they were a year ago.
Both are under contract for the next two seasons, though what the future holds remains unclear, particularly for Haden, who will be entering his age-33 season in the first year of a new deal or extension in 2022, and cornerbacks tend to fall off a cliff in a hurry.
In the meantime, the team needs to assure that it finds depth. Could Sutton develop into a future starter? Will he even be retained beyond the current season, as he plays out the final year of his rookie deal? That is, of course, the downside to requiring free agency to acquire talent, as it lessens the maximum longitude of service for that player. But if it’s the only way, it’s worth the price.