Entering the offseason ahead of free agency and the 2023 NFL Draft, cornerback is a relatively large need for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
For ESPN’s Todd McShay, the first round of the draft is the ideal time for the Steelers to address one of the more important positions in today’s game, pairing the Steelers with Oregon cornerback Christian Gonzalez in his latest mock draft, which dropped Wednesday morning on ESPN.com.
“If the Steelers can’t retain Cameron Sutton, then Gonzalez makes a lot of sense as a replacement,” McShay writes regarding the selection of Gonzalez at No. 17 overall in his latest mock draft. “He has 6-foot-2 size, good length, some serious wheels and high-end ball skills, as evidenced by four interceptions in 2022. And if Pittsburgh does re-sign Sutton or add another cornerback via free agency, Gonzalez has versatility to move around the secondary and line up over the slot.
“Alternatively, the Steelers could look at offensive line reinforcements, though the top three offensive tackles are off the board in this scenario.”
Previously, McShay mocked Ohio State left tackle Paris Johnson Jr. to the Steelers in the first round, but in his latest mock Johnson comes off the board at No. 11 overall to the Tennessee Titans, forcing a change in names for the Steelers.
Though the expectation is that Sutton will be retained ahead of free agency, the Steelers still have a rather large need at cornerback behind him and veteran Levi Wallace, who had a strong season in the black and gold after coming over in free agency from Buffalo last offseason. Outside of Sutton and Wallace, names like Arthur Maulet and James Pierre remain on the depth chart, but guys like Ahkello Witherspoon and William Jackson III are expected to be released to save some cap space.
That opens up a major need for a high-end cornerback to enter the fold via the draft. Prior to McShay selecting Gonzalez for the Steelers, Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. was selected at No. 14 by the New England Patriots in the exercise, while Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon came off the board at No. 16 to Washington — one spot ahead of Pittsburgh.
With offensive linemen like Johnson, Georgia’s Broderick Jones, and Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski already off the board, as well as Clemson defensive tackle Bryan Bresee, McShay went with Gonzalez at cornerback over Georgia’s Kelee Ringo, South Carolina’s Cam Smith, and Alabama’s Brian Branch in the secondary in the exercise.
Gonzalez certainly is an intriguing prospect with great size and athleticism, not to mention good ball skills for the position.
A Colorado transfer, Gonzalez was a star at Oregon this season, finishing with 50 tackles, four interceptions, seven passes defensed and one tackle for loss on the season for the Ducks. Prior to the season, Gonzalez was named to The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman’s “Freaks List” for his athleticism.
Gonzalez was clocked at 23.3 MPH on a GPS tracker, jumped 42 inches and power-cleaned 325 pounds as a 6-foot-2, 200-pound cornerback.
According to PFF, Gonzalez — a redshirt sophomore — allowed a 74.7 passer rating, which ranks 140th in college football among corners with at least 100 snaps. Gonzalez was targeted 64 times in 2022, the most in his team. He allowed 39 catches for 495 yards as a member of the Ducks.
In three seasons in college, Gonzalez recorded 128 tackles with four interceptions and 17 passes defensed.
Elsewhere in the AFC North in McShay’s mock draft, the Baltimore Ravens landed Texas running back Bijan Robinson at No. 22 overall, the Cincinnati Bengals landed Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid at No. 28 overall, and the Cleveland Browns do not have a first round pick due to the Deshaun Watson trade with Houston.