Even after all the moves the Pittsburgh Steelers made this offseason under GM Omar Khan and Assistant GM Andy Weidl, there’s one clear area of the roster that needs a significant upgrade.
That would be cornerback. After losing Cameron Sutton in free agency to the Detroit Lions and replacing him with veteran Patrick Peterson, the Steelers still have a serious need at the cornerback position.
A high draft pick could certainly fill that need, and that’s just the direction the Steelers went in ESPN’s mock draft Tuesday morning from former NFL GM Mike Tannenbaum, landing Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon at No. 17 overall.
“The Steelers allowed the fourth-highest yards per pass attempt (7.5) and tied for the second-most touchdowns passes against (29) in 2022. Cam Sutton has been replaced with Patrick Peterson, but Pittsburgh still needs a young cornerback,” Tannenbaum writes regarding the selection of Witherspoon at No. 17 overall. “I love Witherspoon’s fit in the Steelers’ scheme; he is tough, competitive and an effective tackler. And among FBS qualified defenders, Witherspoon allowed the second-fewest yards per pass attempt (3.3). I consider him the most physical cornerback in this year’s draft, too.”
As Tannenbaum points out, the Steelers struggled in pass coverage, allowing a high number of yards per passing attempt while getting beaten consistently for scores through the air in 2022. Though Peterson is a sound addition for the Steelers in an effort to replace Sutton, Pittsburgh still needs that versatile piece overall.
That’s where Witherspoon could come in.
He just has the feel of a Steelers cornerback. Witherspoon is a physical defender who can play on the boundary or in the slot and really loves to come downhill and stick his face in the fan. He attempted to set the physical tone for the defense weekly during his time at Illinois.
Witherspoon was the Big Ten’s Defensive Back of the Year, a consensus First Team All-American, and won the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the top defensive back in the country. In coverage, allowed just a 33.8% completion percentage when targeted by quarterbacks in 2022, best in the nation; broke up 17 passes in 2022, good for sixth in the country; and allowed less than 35 yards receiving in 11 of 12 games in 2022.
He was nothing short of dominant in his final season with the Fighting Illini.
Here’s what I wrote about Witherspoon in the draft profile for Steelers Depot in late January:
“He’s a physical defender that is a tone setter for the defensive unit, loves to play on an island in man coverage and can truly take away half the field in coverage. While there are concerns about his overall frame being maxed out and his overall top speed, the chip he plays with and the background he comes from being a former 0-star recruit will continue to drive him at the next level.
“Witherspoon profiles as a plug-and-play starter right away, whether that’s in the slot or on the boundary in a man-heavy or zone scheme. It wouldn’t shock me to see him reach the Pro Bowl in his first season in the NFL, either.”
While Witherspoon would be a good add for the Steelers at No. 17 overall, it was a curious selection in Tannenbaum’s mock draft. With the very next pick the Detroit Lions landed standout defensive tackle Jalen Carter while a name like Penn State cornerback Joey Porter Jr. was on the board as well.