In one month, the 2023 NFL Draft will kick off in Kansas City. There, the Pittsburgh Steelers will have an opportunity to add a high-end cornerback prospect to a position group still reeling from the loss of Cameron Sutton in free agency and adjusting to the addition of Patrick Peterson.
If ESPN’s Matt Miller has his way, one of two names will be a Steelers at the position — which is extremely deep — in the first round of the draft, simply based on best fit. Those two players? Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. and South Carolina’s Cam Smith.
Ranking the top 11 cornerbacks in the 2023 NFL Draft Monday for ESPN, Miller gave his thoughts on best fits and made pro comparisons for each of the top 11. Only Porter Jr. and Smith had the Steelers highlighted as best fits.
In Miller’s rankings, Porter Jr. checked in at No. 3 and Smith checked in at No. 7.
“Porter is the biggest of the top cornerbacks and a favorite among pro teams running man-coverage schemes,” Miller writes. “He shows high-end instincts, speed, toughness and physicality, limiting opponents to 3.7 yards per attempt thrown his direction last season, tied for fourth-best in the FBS. Porter didn’t have any interceptions in 2022, but he did break up 11 passes and forced an incompletion on a nation-best 37.9% of his targeted throws.”
Miller added that many of the scouts he’s talked to have said the floor for where Porter Jr. goes in the draft is No. 17 overall to the Steelers. He compared the Penn State product to Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey.
Porter Jr. and the Steelers have been discussed ad nauseam since last summer when the former Penn State standout was projected to leave school early and enter the 2023 NFL Draft. That’s what ended up happening, and it just so happens to line up with the Steelers’ need for a true No. 1 cornerback opposite Peterson, especially in a loaded AFC that features star quarterbacks and receivers.
While Porter Jr. is considered a high-end prospect due to his physical traits (6024, 193 Lbs., 34-inch arms, 4.46 40-yard dash, 35-inch vertical), the tape is a bit concerning. Porter Jr. can get a bit grab-happy, leading to penalties, and the production just isn’t quite there with just one career interception during his time in Happy Valley.
In his Penn State career, Porter Jr. recorded 113 total tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, one interception and 20 passes defensed. He also earned a number of individual accolades, including second-team All-American (2022), first-team All-Big Ten (2022), Penn State’s Most Valuable Defensive Player (2022), third-team All-Big Ten (2021), and honorable mention All-Big Ten (2020).
If Porter Jr. were the guy, it would check a lot of the boxes that the Steelers look for, including his being an underclassman but with plenty of experience (34 career games) and having NFL bloodlines. Add in the obvious need at cornerback and the pairing of Porter Jr. and the Steelers makes sense.
As for Smith, he’s lost a bit of steam when it comes to interest from the Steelers. But he’d be a sound fit for the Black and Gold, too, should Pittsburgh miss out on the top guys at the position.
“In his four years at South Carolina, the 6-1, 180-pound Smith had six interceptions. His 4.43-speed is, as mentioned, very solid. What stood out most to scouts were his quickness and closing speed,” Miller writes. “He has great on-the-ball production, and he limited receivers to 4.4 yards per attempt (tied for 21st in the FBS), but we see a lot of potential flags on tape due to his grabby nature in coverage.”
Miller added that along with the Steelers, the Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions are the best fits for the Gamecocks star, and compared him to New England Patriots cornerback Jack Jones, who had a strong rookie season in 2022 before getting hurt.
With six career interceptions, including four in the last two seasons, Smith has demonstrated near-elite ball skills. In addition to his three interceptions during his junior season in 2021, Smith also contributed 11 pass deflections.
Owen Straley gave him a mid-late first-round grade in his profile for Steelers Depot. He called Smith “as complete a cornerback prospect as you will see” and compared him to Stephon Gilmore, another South Carolina product, as a prospect. If Pittsburgh targets a corner with one of their first two picks, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Smith be that guy given his college production, measurables and Combine performance.
Landing either one of those two cornerbacks would be a huge get for the Steelers, pairing a young, physical cornerback with veterans like Peterson, Levi Wallace and Ahkello Witherspoon in a rebuilt cornerback room. It’s a great class at the position, and the Steelers would be wise to strike early at the position to ensure they get a top-flight guy.