The Pittsburgh Steelers had more quality depth at the cornerback position the past two years than they have had in probably a good decade or so, with Joe Haden and Steven Nelson starting on the outside, Mike Hilton in the slot, and then Cameron Sutton as the veteran everyman who was their dime defender and spot starter at all three other positions.
Since then, Hilton signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Cincinnati Bengals on a four-year, $24 million contract. Nelson was released, thereby relieving the Steelers of more than $8 million in the base salary that he was due for the 2021 season.
While they retain Haden and re-signed Sutton, who will move into the starting lineup, the depth is now thin, with the inexperienced Justin Layne and James Pierre as the only other cornerback carryovers from last season—neither of whom profile as a slot defender.
A couple of familiar names might make sense in a pair of former Cincinnati Bengals cornerbacks. Darqueze Dennard never fully panned out as a first-round pick, but if cheap, he could be a valuable slot option. Last year, they replaced him with Mackensie Alexander on a one-year deal, who is back on the market. Of course, the Bengals signed Hilton this offseason, so it would only be fair to do an exchange.
The Steelers had pre-draft interest in Alexander when he came out of Clemson in 2016. They ended up selecting Artie Burns in the first round, but Alexander was the next cornerback to come off the board after that, taken by the Minnesota Vikings. Dennard was a pre-draft visit back in 2014 as well, coming in the same day that they hosted Stephon Tuitt, whom they would draft in the second round.
After releasing Nelson and restructuring Eric Ebron’s contract, Pittsburgh has given itself some breathing room as far as the salary cap for the 2021 season is concerned—enough even that they could reasonably make a modest free agent signing.
And a not insignificant part of me believes that it would be a mistake for the team to leave this area of the roster unaddressed entering the draft. You can’t lose two of your top four cornerbacks and waltz into the draft, with other arguably equally important needs such as center and linebacker, expecting to lock everything up and find day-one contributors.
Right now, the Steelers would have to be able to rely upon either Layne or Pierre to play some 600-plus snaps in 2021 as a nickel defender who comes in and lines up on the outside, pushing Sutton into the slot. Do you feel comfortable with that proposition? Because I don’t. Especially not in light of the progress that has been made in the secondary in recent years.