2023 Pre-Draft Movements – Cornerback

We started this series with a little over two weeks remaining to the draft, knowing that nearly all of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ pertinent personnel decisions will have already been made by then. Over the course of the series, we will be reviewing the team’s roster turnover position by position in an effort to help us project what their plans will be for the 2023 NFL Draft.

The Steelers had a number of notable starters hit free agency this year, and their retention success rate was mixed, re-signing Larry Ogunjobi but losing Cameron Sutton, for example. Largely, however, what they lost they replaced, adding Patrick Peterson in Sutton’s stead.

They also had another active year in outside free agency beyond replacing missing pieces, or voluntary departures, such as Myles Jack. The most notable move was Isaac Seumalo being signed along the offensive line. While Terrell Edmunds is gone, Damontae Kazee was retained and Keanu Neal was added. Likewise, Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts come in and replace Devin Bush and Robert Spillane.

The team did not have to make drastic moves in order to get into cap compliance, but they did release two high-salaried players in linebacker Jack and William Jackson III, the latter of whom never dressed for them. As of now, they have restructured only one contract to create cap space, that being Minkah Fitzpatrick, though restructuring T.J. Watt later this offseason is very possible.

Position: Cornerback

Total Positional Figure: 8

Offseason Additions: 1

Offseason Deletions: 1

Players Retained:

Levi Wallace: Wallace is the top remaining cornerback from last year’s roster after Cameron Sutton signed with the Detroit Lions and Ahkello Witherspoon was demoted. For the time being, he is projected to be a full-time starter after posting a career-high four interceptions last season.

James Pierre: While the Steelers opted not to apply a restricted free agent tender to Pierre, they still re-signed him at a lower rate. A regular contributor on special teams, he figures to continue to provide quality depth and possibly see work in sub-packages. There’s a chance he could even compete for a starting job.

Ahkello Witherspoon: As of this writing, Witherspoon remains on the roster following a poor and injury-plagued 2022 season. Due a $4 million base salary, however, there is a lot of time left between now and the start of the regular season to see if he sticks.

Arthur Maulet: Entering his third season in Pittsburgh, Maulet has carved out a role as a gritty slot defender whose strength unfortunately does not lean toward pure coverage ability. Diversifying the slot position might be one priority this offseason.

Duke Dawson: Though he hasn’t played in the regular season since 2020, Dawson has the pedigree of a former second-round pick. He joined the Steelers’ practice squad in October and remained through the rest of the year.

Madre Harper: The 6’1” former college free agent has played in 12 games, though only with 37 defensive snaps, over the past three years. After spending last season on the Panthers’ practice squad, he signed with the Steelers on a Reserve/Future contract.

Chris Wilcox: Another tall defensive back at 6’2”, the former seventh-round pick has yet to play in the regular season. As with Harper, he only joined the Steelers after the 2022 season on a Reserve/Future deal.

Players Added:

Patrick Peterson: The former All-Pro agreed to a two-year, $14 million contract hours after it was reported that Sutton would be leaving for Detroit. Peterson, who turns 33 in July, understands as well as anybody that at point of his career he is a bridge starter. He has expressed a willingness to expand his resume by moving around the field this year.

Players Deleted:

Cameron Sutton: One of the few Mike Tomlin defensive back draft pick success stories, Sutton found a home with the Lions this offseason, signing a three-year, $33 million deal. Most seemed to feel the Steelers would be willing to pay up to retain him; it’s unclear why they weren’t willing to. It may be that they simply felt that strongly about this draft class and of the opportunity to add Peterson as a bridge.

Notes And Draft Outlook:

Outside of offensive tackle, cornerback is the most likely target area for the first round, and you already know the top options. While Devon Witherspoon is likely to be out of reach, there is a chance of Christian Gonzalez falling, or being available through a small trade.

The most likely targets at 17 would be Joey Porter Jr. or Deonte Banks, but this is regarded as a deep draft class with potential starters available throughout the first few rounds. Some have suggested, astutely I believe, that the Steelers may look to double dip at the position, as they could use another slot defender whose strength is coverage.

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