It’s said a draft class can’t be fully graded until at least three years after the picks are made. That’s why after submitting grades for every Pittsburgh Steelers pick made in 2021, I went back three years and graded every selection from the 2018 class. But why stop there? Why not continue to go back through past Steelers’ classes with even more time to prove picks good/bad, and see how well each turned out? That look back continues today with the first of the team’s third-round picks in the 2017 NFL Draft, Tennessee cornerback Cameron Sutton.
This exercise will follow the same six viewpoints (listed below) for examining a pick that re-grading the 2018 class did. Each of the first five viewpoints gets examined and assigned a letter grade, before taking that analysis and combining it into a final letter grade. Those five viewpoints comprise much of what goes into the draft grades consumed by so many every year after the draft.
Steelers’ Career: What did the player contribute to the team that drafted him?
NFL Career: Did the player make the pick look better in hindsight after leaving Pittsburgh?
Pick Value: Did the player outperform his draft slot? Did he fail to live up to the pick used on him?
Positional Value: Was the player the best player remaining at his specific position in the draft?
Other Options: Did any players go during the next round that were better selections?
Overall Grade: A final mark to denote whether the selection was an overall positive one, or one better spent elsewhere.
Each factor in a retrospective doesn’t apply evenly to every pick made; consider the grades weighted. For example, to return a high grade in pick value, a first-round pick should have a long and impactful career, while a later-round pick needs only a couple seasons as a back-up or modest contributor to be worth the selection used on him.
Some factors are universal, though. Whether picked first overall or 259th, there will always be other options on the board to compare the player to, and steals and reaches can come from any place in the draft.
Round 3, Pick 30: Cameron Sutton, CB, Tennessee
STEELERS & NFL CAREER: B
A hamstring injury curtailed Sutton’s rookie season and limited him to only five games. Since, Sutton has been an every-game player over three seasons for the Steelers, moving into more of a starting role his most recent season with six starts across 16 games.
He didn’t look out of place in that role or overall as the team’s third cornerback behind Joe Haden and Steven Nelson. For the third consecutive season he intercepted a pass, and Sutton set new career highs with eight passes defensed, three forced fumbles, his first career fumble recovery, and 30 total tackles. It was a performance that made Pittsburgh confident enough to make him the rare cornerback it drafted to be offered a second contract, and confident enough to release Nelson this offseason and elevate Sutton to his role as the team’s No. 2 behind Haden.
It’s been a good start to the career of Sutton, who proved a valuable depth piece in the secondary his first three seasons and worth a bigger role his most recent one. This coming season is the one where he has the opportunity step well beyond the performance of a late third-rounder.
PICK VALUE: B+
I have to hold back a little here. Because while it’s outstanding to get a starting cornerback 94th overall, Sutton hasn’t actually begun playing games as the starter yet. He has to retain the job and show he can handle it well, that he is more Steven Nelson and less Artie Burns. His performance to this point in his career indicates that he will, and you can elevate this grade accordingly once it happens.
For now, the value Sutton has returned is that of one of the better third corners in the league, and a player who has constantly improved every season and earned a chance to start. Even if it ends up that he has to stay a third corner and isn’t a starter (once again, I don’t expect that to happen), Pittsburgh reaped quality value with the pick. And there’s nowhere to go but up.
POSITIONAL VALUE: A
A couple names have had momentary flashes of promise, but the cornerback class fell off quick after Shaquill Griffin went 90th and Sutton 94th. Cordrea Tankersley (Miami) had a strong rookie season but has played eight games over three years since. Damontae Kazee is a big-time ballhawk and hitter in the secondary, but converted to safety. Desmond King made All-Pro as a punt returner and looked like a star switching from safety to corner, but is on his third team in three seasons.
Among players drafted at corner and staying at corner, Sutton is the clear best player left in the class taken 94th or later. That is the bulk of this grade and why it sits so high. However, there is room for minor considerations of both Kazee and King, primarily the former since he was also drafted as a corner. Since leading the NFL in interceptions in 2018, Kazee has come back down to Earth. And King’s recent seasons have clouded a stellar first two. Similar to yesterday’s grade in this section for JuJu Smith-Schuster, it is close in a re-draft, but I’d still take Sutton, with King the next-closest. But among those drafted and kept at corner from 94th on, Sutton is clearly the best player.
OTHER OPTIONS: B
In another similarity to yesterday’s retrospective on Smith-Schuster, you can find a lot of talent that went in the 32 picks following Sutton. Even Pittsburgh hit on a player over the next group of picks, drafting James Conner 105th (who will get his own retrospective this weekend).
Kenny Golladay two picks later is one of the biggest hits in that range, a receiver with the chance to establish himself as a bona fide No. 1 this season after escaping Detroit. Eddie Jackson at 112th is the other, an All-Pro who Chicago made the highest-paid safety in football last year.
Jonnu Smith (Tennessee, 100th) just earned a big deal to play tight end for New England. As did Trey Hendrickson (New Orleans, 103rd) to edge rush for Cincinnati, and Carl Lawson (Cincinnati, 116th) for the New York Jets. Rashawn Jenkins (L.A. Chargers, 113th) has started the last two seasons at safety, and Tarik Cohen (Chicago, 119th) has thrived as a pass-catching back for the Bears.
Sutton fits right at home with that last paragraph of names as a successful pick at the turn from Day 2 to Day 3. There’s even cause to debate him versus a name like Smith or Lawson. But all of them trail Golladay and Jackson by a wide margin as the best picks made from 94-127.
OVERALL GRADE: B+
In the constant struggle that is the Steelers trying to draft quality players in the secondary on Days 1 and 2, Sutton stands out as the exception right now. If he proves he was worth the promotion to starter this season and retains the job for at least a year or two after that, I would argue he becomes the first true “hit” since Keenan Lewis in 2009, and the first one kept in-house since Troy Polamalu in 2003.
It’s been promising to watch Sutton’s growth season after season for the Steelers. With that consistent improvement, it’s hard to argue against him getting a full-season audition to start. Whether he nails it or settles back into a No. 3 role as the team searches next offseason for a new starter, Sutton was a quality draft pick for the franchise, one who outplayed the 94th pick used on him, and added his name to a class that was absolutely loaded at the position.