While first-round picks garner a lot of attention, everybody likes an underdog. At least, they like the underdog while they’re still underdogs, and then many begin to grow tired of them when they’re no longer defying the odds. But I digress.
There are times when the college free agent signings are just as intriguing as the early draft picks in terms of watching closely for developments and news. After all, it’s far less surprising if a second-round pick looks good, but if some lanky cornerback out of Florida Atlantic shows up after being signed as a college free agent, then you’re talking about something you didn’t know you had. And that’s exciting.
That lanky cornerback out of Florida Atlantic is the 6’2” James Pierre, by the way, who made the 53-man roster last year as a rookie even though he didn’t have the benefit of rookie minicamp, OTAs, or even a preseason, and lasted all year—and is now potentially in the position to battle for a starting job as the primarily nickel defender.
But who will be the next diamond in the rough, so to speak? In terms of the Steelers’ latest crop of college free agents, it has been another cornerback, Shakur Brown, who has drawn the most attention, and that includes Bleacher Report, who named him the Steelers’ most exciting undrafted free agent.
Brown has the skill to start on the outside, but his 5’10”, 190-pound frame may force him to mostly cover the slot. The Michigan State product is not exceptionally fast but makes up for it by being fundamentally sound with a motor that doesn’t quit. He rarely gets beat and is a ballhawk, recording five interceptions in seven games last year.
While Brown started only 12 games with the Spartans, he looked incredible during them. He excelled in both man and zone coverage while matching up with top wideouts and winning most battles. Even if Brown isn’t ready to be a No. 2 corner, he could be a Day 1 nickelback for a squad that doesn’t have many alternatives.
It is worth noting that the Steelers gave Brown a $25,000 signing bonus, which is significantly larger than they typically give out to any one free agent (this year, teams’ total undrafted rookie reservation amount, the total signing bonus money they can give out, is $160,000), which is a sign that they really wanted to bring him in.
Frankly, Steelers fans seem to be more excited about Brown than they are about most of the players the team actually drafted. But he will have the opportunity to prove he is worth the attention. It’s not as though they haven’t had success with undrafted rookies before.