As Pro Football Focus concludes its rankings of the top 32 players in the NFL at every position, the last complete (non-special teams) position group left was the secondary. The Pittsburgh Steelers came in well-represented on those three lists, with Minkah Fitzpatrick ranking fifth among all NFL safeties, and offseason departure Mike Hilton (now with Cincinnati) fourth among a top 10 list of slot cornerbacks.
The Steelers doubled up on the list of PFF’s top 32 outside cornerbacks, placing both a current and former player among the league’s best. Current top corner Joe Haden ranked 17th by PFF, just four spots below Steven Nelson, whom Pittsburgh released as a cost-saving measure this offseason.
Here is what article author Ben Linsey said about Haden in ranking him 17th.
“Haden may be on the downward slope of his career, but he has provided Pittsburgh with steady play at cornerback since joining the team in 2018 and should continue to do so in 2021. He’s picked off nine passes over the past three seasons, and that total should be even higher, as Haden’s nine dropped interceptions since 2018 are tied for the most at the position. Those missed opportunities only make the 77.5 passer rating allowed over that span (13th in the NFL) more impressive.”
The edge of the cliff is coming for Haden, who turned 32 in April and has 11 seasons on his resume. But thus far he hasn’t close to it, starting all 57 games he has played for the Steelers in four seasons. In that time, Haden has been one of the team’s top two corners for every snap with 10 interceptions and 48 passes defensed in four seasons. Each of the past three seasons has seen Haden defense at least 12 passes and intercept two or more. His five interceptions and 17 passes defensed in 2019 earned Haden his third career Pro Bowl nod.
The only player in Haden’s four Pittsburgh seasons to rival him as the team’s top corner is Nelson, ranked 13th by PFF but yet unsigned after the Steelers made him a surprise cut for salary cap reasons. Here are Linsey’s thoughts on Nelson:
“Nelson was another surprise release by a team strapped for salary cap space. His addition, along with the signing of Joe Haden, helped stabilize a turbulent cornerback position in Pittsburgh over these last two seasons. Nelson ranks among the top 10 cornerbacks in the league in both completion rate allowed (53.9%) and passer rating allowed (75.1) among 68 players at the position to see at least 100 targets since 2019. There’s a reason he has received plenty of interest since his release.”
The fourth-year corner arrived in Pittsburgh in 2019 as one of the team’s highest-profile free agent signings of Kevin Colbert’s tenure as general manager. He also quickly became one of the best, intercepting three passes, defensing 17, and starting 15 games each of his two seasons with the Steelers. In his short run, he and Haden gave the Steelers two legitimate No. 1 cornerbacks, and locked up a position normally a weakness for the franchise.
If Nelson remained with Pittsburgh, the Steelers would have had the third-best pair of corners in the NFL by PFF’s list, trailing the New York Giants, New England Patriots, and Baltimore Ravens.
PFF named Baltimore’s tandem of Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters the best in the NFL. Humphrey ranked third overall in the league (trailing only lockdown corners Jaire Alexander of Green Bay and Jalen Ramsey of the L.A. Rams), and Peters ranked 10th.
For the Ohio teams in the AFC North, each placed one on the list. Denzel Ward ranked eighth for the Cleveland Browns, while Trae Waynes just saved the Cincinnati Bengals from missing the list entirely, coming in at 31st.