Sitting at number 17 in the 2023 draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers are often linked to the corner position. More than a few mock drafts have them selecting Penn State cornerback Joey Porter Jr. and Illinois corner Devon Witherspoon, among others. This is not without merit, as the team’s struggles in pass defense were arguably caused by their lack of a top corner in 2022, largely due to the departure of Joe Haden. With all of that being said, there is reason to believe that the team will head in a different direction with their first-round pick, which this article will lay out.
1. Draft History
The Steelers have selected one cornerback in the first round since the 1998 draft: Artie Burns. Moreover, they have swung and missed on the position plenty of times in recent drafts. Indeed, their recent cornerback selections in the first three rounds include Burns in the first round, Justin Layne in the third round, Senquez Golson in the second round, among others. For perspective, Cameron Sutton is the first Steelers’ corner selected in the first three rounds to remain with his team past his rookie contract since Bryant McFadden (who left and came back).
Now, to address the elephant in the room, the Steelers have a new general manager in Omar Khan, and a new assistant GM in Andy Weidl. As such, it’s entirely possible for the management to divert from some of Kevin Colbert’s methods. However, the contrary is just as possible, as Khan worked alongside Colbert for many years. For now, it is arguably a reasonable assumption that the team will stick to historical trends.
As dim as the team’s track record in drafting corners is, they have found success in free agency. Haden, who is arguably the team’s best corner in recent years, was a free-agent signing, as were Levi Wallace, Steven Nelson, and Mike Hilton. As such, whether the team addresses the position in free agency period will be telling.
2. Is Outside Corner A Big Need?
For context, here is how the group performed in 2021, according to Pro Football Focus’s premium stats.
|Yards Allowed||Passer Rating Allowed||Targets||Catches Allowed|
The Steelers’ corner group for 2023 currently consists of Arthur Maulet, Levi Wallace, Akhello Witherspoon, and William Jackson III. Jackson III is likely to be a cap casualty while Witherspoon may join him. Meanwhile, Cameron Sutton and the team appear to have mutual interest in his being resigned, and James Pierre is a restricted free agent and likely to be tendered. Assuming Sutton and Pierre are retained and Witherspoon and Jackson III are not, this leaves a group of Sutton, Pierre, Maulet, and Wallace. While this group could use an upgrade, particularly in the slot/nickel corner position, it is plausible to see the Steelers being comfortable with starting Sutton and Wallace on the outside, as they are both proven capable starters. Of course, all of this assumes that Sutton is retained, which appears to be a likely scenario per the team’s owner Art Rooney.
With the naturally limited information this early in the offseason, the word of the team’s owner is about as reliable an assumption as there is on Sutton. Needless to say, Sutton leaving in free agency might change this, but that does not appear to be the most likely scenario as of now. This circles back to the question of how big a need the outside corner position is with Sutton and Wallace at the helm, especially in contrast to other roster holes the team has. Can the team draft Porter Jr., Devon Witherspoon, or Christian Gonzalez at 17 to upgrade from Wallace in the last year of his contract? Sure. For now, however, all the signs are indicating otherwise.
This isn’t to say that corner isn’t a need. As the chart above indicates, the team needs to upgrade from Maulet at the slot corner position, as he allowed the highest passer rating among starters at 105.8. While drafting a slot corner in the first round is not unheard of, it is rather unlikely. The team will more than likely select a corner at some point in the draft, but it may not be with the 17th pick.
3. Other Needs
Reportedly, the Steelers and Tomlin did not hide their primary positions group of interest during Senior Bowl Week, as they were transparently eyeing linemen on both sides of the trenches. In recent years, the Steelers’ interest in a given player has been predictable throughout the pre-draft process, to say the least. In 2021, their interest in eventual first-round pick Najee Harris was a poorly kept secret, as was their interest in the quarterback prospects last season before they eventually selected Kenny Pickett.
For the Steelers, both sides of the trenches can use an upgrade. The offensive line, a position group that Tomlin reportedly clung to during Senior Bowl practice, would certainly benefit from a top draft pick. While they outperformed expectations in 2022, the Steelers’ offensive line is lacking a high-caliber player. Given that the team is attempting to establish an identity on the ground, it would be all but shocking to see the team select a guard in the first round to potentially replace Kevin Dotson. Not to mention, the Steelers have a young quarterback that they invested a first-round pick on, and must invest in the offense around him to ensure his development.
On the other side of the trenches, Cameron Heyward is currently the only locked-in starter on the defensive line for 2023, and he is 33 years old. Defensive end Larry Ogunjobi is a free agent, Chris Wormley tore his ACL and may not be back for Week One, and nose tackle Tyson Alualu is likely retiring. This leaves DeMarvin Leal, Montravius Adams, and Isaiahh Loudermilk as the only players alongside Heyward. Needless to say, this group could use another anchor alongside Heyward, and for years to come. The last time the Steelers had a productive player alongside Heyward in Stephon Tuitt, their defense was a force to be reckoned with. After Tuitt’s retirement, the team saw the consequences of not having ample depth at the position in 2021, as they ranked dead last in run defense. After all, the Steelers’ defensive philosophy starts and ends with the pass rush, as they led or co-led the league in sacks for five straight seasons prior to 2022. If quarterbacks can have all day to throw or face a poor run defense as they did in 2021, it won’t matter much who is playing at corner.
Unlike the cornerback position (assuming Sutton is resigned), the Steelers don’t have locked-in starters at other positions. Aside from the uncertainty in the defensive line, middle linebacker is another one of said positions. That is, the team started now free agents Devin Bush and Robert Spillane alongside Myles Jack, and the former has hinted at wanting to play for another team while the latter saw the team trade for Joe Schobert to replace his starting role in 2021.