As we’ve done in previous years, we’re looking at Pittsburgh Steelers under futures contracts for the 2023 offseason. A lot of players spent most if not the entire year on the practice squad, and we look at what we can expect from them during training camp (hopefully) into the regular season.
Madre Harper/CB Southern Illinois – 6016, 196
If you want the “first off the bus” type of cornerback on your team, Harper is that guy. Though the “prototypical size corner” is more common in today’s NFL than it was even a decade ago when Richard Sherman felt like a unicorn, Harper hits all the right notes. Just under 6’2, roughly 200 pounds, with incredible length, 33 7/8 inches. He’s basically the same size as Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. and Harper tested even better. A 4.43 40, 40 inch vertical, 11’2″ broad, 6.88 three cone, and even posted a respectable 14 reps on the bar, really impressive when you consider the arm length.
So why isn’t this guy a NFL starter? A solid recruit out of high school, he initially committed to Oklahoma State. playing on special teams his freshman year and even recovering a muffed punt for a touchdown in his first career game. After seeing a handful of games in 2017, Harper was one of several Cowboys’ players who didn’t make the trip to a game against Pittsburgh. After the game, head coach Mike Gundy revealed Harper had been dismissed for a violation of team rules, though the specific reasons weren’t revealed.
That’s how Harper ended up at Southern Illinois. He played well his senior year, using his size and length to break up twelve passes while picking off another two. He chipped in another 42 tackles, most of any corner on the team, so he didn’t show any issue stopping runners when he wasn’t breaking up throws. Invited to the Northwestern Pro Day, he put up those eye-popping numbers. Still, it wasn’t enough to get him drafted in 2020, teams not being able to attend his Pro Day because of COVID probably didn’t help, and he signed with the Las Vegas Raiders as an undrafted free agent. Harper stuck around on the team’s practice squad before being plucked off there by the New York Giants, who signed him to their active roster in early October. There, he saw his first NFL action, mostly logging time on special teams but also seeing 37 defensive snaps. Appearing in nine games, he recorded five tackles and recovered a fumble.
He couldn’t make the Giants out of camp the following year and briefly returned to the Raiders, who rostered him for the first few weeks of the year. Two weeks later, he signed with the Carolina Panthers, getting his second crack at Sunday’s but appearing in only three games, all on special teams, and not showing up on the stat sheet. He spent 2022 on the Panthers’ practice squad before inking his Futures deal with Pittsburgh on January 11th.
As tantalizing as the long coverage corner is, Harper hasn’t been able to put things together yet. And he sits in a Steelers’ secondary that has size at corner: Patrick Peterson, Levi Wallace, Ahkello Witherspoon, James Pierre, none of those guys are considered small. Pittsburgh, like most teams, have had those good-looking corners come and go on the 90-man roster. Stephen Denmark was one of those guys a couple seasons ago. Had the size, killed it in the testing, never panned out.
Still, you can’t ignore a corner with size and length in Pittsburgh’s man scheme and his special teams snaps will give him an inside track on the rookies he’ll battle in camp. We’ll see what he makes of the opportunity.