Long, fast, physical cornerbacks are en vogue in the NFL today, and a new wave of them are coming via the 2023 NFL Draft. That should be music to the ears of the decision makers in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ front office, as cornerback remains a major need for the Black and Gold ahead of the 2023 season.
While much of the offseason attention focuses on the likes of Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr., Kansas State’s Julius Brents, Georgia’s Kelee Ringo and Maryland’s Deonte Banks, cornerbacks who fit that long, physical, fast mold the Steelers typically like under head coach Mike Tomlin, one under the radar move in January might have already placed that type of cornerback on the roster.
On January 11, the Steelers signed Madre Harper to a reserve/futures contract, giving them a 25-year-old cornerback who has 12 games of NFL experience with the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers.
Just under 6’2″, roughly 200 pounds, with incredible length with 33 7/8-inch arms, Harper is basically the same size as Porter Jr. and already has NFL experience defensively and on special teams. Harper tested even better too. He posted a 4.43 40, 40 inch vertical, 11’2″ broad jump, 6.88 three-cone, and even posted a respectable 14 reps on the bar in 2020.
Following an eventual road to the NFL, Harper is now searching for another chance, this time with the Steelers.
Speaking with Steelers Depot Monday, Harper detailed why he chose the Steelers on a reserve/futures contract after two seasons with the Carolina Panthers and spending the entire 2022 season on Carolina’s practice squad.
“I played a little bit [in the NFL] and a did a two-year stint with the Panthers, and after me and my agent decided to leave there, we really wanted to play for a coach that really catered to what I am,” Harper told Steelers Depot. “I know that Mike Tomlin really likes long, aggressive, hard-nosed corners. That’s really his thing; that’s really what he likes. And I just really like the organization.
“We just really felt like it was a great fit, especially with Coach Grady [Brown], too. He’s a great DB coach; heard a lot of great things about him. …And we saw a need as well. I know they’re down on DBs, so I think I can come in there and help out on defense, special teams, whatever it may be.”
Prior to the NFL, Harper committed to Oklahoma State and spent two years with the Cowboys. He made quite the debut as a true freshman on his first play, recovering a muffed punt for a touchdown. After being dismissed from Oklahoma State for a violation of team rules in 2019, Harper landed at Southern Illinois and dominated.
Harper took off his senior year, using his size and length to break up a conference-high 12 passes while picking off another two and adding 42 tackles as that physical cornerback. After a great senior season, Harper was Invited to the Northwestern Pro Day where he put up those eye-popping testing results.
Despite the great showing at the Pro Day, it wasn’t good enough for Harper to get drafted in 2020, eventually leading to him signing with the Las Vegas Raiders as an undrafted free agent. Harper stuck around on the team’s practice squad before being plucked by the New York Giants, who signed him to their active roster in early October 2020. In the Big Apple, Harper 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, again on special teams.
He couldn’t make the Giants out of camp in 2021 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 another shot at a 53-man roster. He only appeared in three games with the Panthers in 2021, all on special teams, before spending the entire 2022 season on the Panthers’ practice squad. He inked his Futures deal with Pittsburgh on January 11.
Now, a fresh start in Pittsburgh affords Harper the opportunity to carve out a role, whether on defense in a cornerbacks room lacking depth and upside or on special teams where the Steelers need some help under special-teams coordinator Danny Smith.
An opportunity to compete is all Harper wants.
“It’s not always about that you weren’t good enough or the situation didn’t pan out. That’s why you have to keep prevailing, keep going out there, keep performing,” Harper said. “Mike Tomlin is one of those coaches that, if you can play and you go out there and go hard and show that you’re going to come here every day and work, he’s going to reward you with an opportunity.
“As an undrafted free agent, that’s all that we really want is an honest opportunity, and now it’s up to me to go out there and capitalize on it.”
On his fourth stop in the NFL, Harper has a real opportunity. In Pittsburgh, the Steelers currently have Patrick Peterson, Levi Wallace, Ahkello Witherspoon, James Pierre, Arthur Maulet, Duke Dawson and Chris Wilcox at the cornerback position, along with Harper.
Though there is some competition there from a depth perspective, there’s a real opportunity for Harper, especially on special teams. He has the experience there in the NFL and has already made an impact in that role. It takes a different mentality to play special teams, but it’s something Harper did consistently, even dating back to high school as a coveted recruit.
Special teams isn’t glamorous, especially for highly recruited players like Harper once was. Thanks to his father, Michael, who played football at Memphis, special teams became an integral role for Harper. That has helped him ultimately reach the NFL and continue to stick around.
“I’ve played special teams my whole life. My dad is big on that. He’s a blue-collar guy…works hard, goes to work every day and he’s a firm believer in playing special teams,” Harper stated. “It’s just something defensive players should do. Growing up in my family and the way we trained, you play special teams, you run down on kickoffs, run down on punts, catch punts, you play all special teams. This is what you do.
“This is how you develop your football callus.”
That should be music to Smith’s ears. With the loss of key special-teams players in recent years like Robert Spillane, Marcus Allen, Miles Boykin, and more, the Steelers need some help, especially after a rough 2022 season in which issues in kick and punt coverage consistently showed up.
That’s where Harper aims to make his mark in the Black and Gold, at least initially.
“It’s more of a want-to. Special teams, 90 percent of it is, I want to beat the guy in front of me. I want to beat the living dog out of him. I want to win. I want to win this rep. I knew I wasn’t going to play a lot of defense in the NFL early on. I knew I wasn’t going to start in New York or Carolina,” Harper said. “But I know my role. When I get into the game on special teams, I’m going to go hard.
“This is my opportunity to go out there and play the game that I love and have some fun.”
That opportunity to go out there, whether on defense or special teams, was what drove Harper. During his time at Southern Illinois, Harper played an average of 112 snaps a game both seasons before getting a shot in the NFL. While the reps defensively might not be there at the moment, opportunity knocks on special teams.
Harper intends to answer the door again.
“It’s a want-to, a desire. It’s something that is a mentality that you just have to have in order to win. My goal is to get out there and destroy people every rep,” he said. “That’s how my dad raised me, how my mentor, Mike Hawkins, who played seven years in the league, that’s just how it is. That’s how we train, that’s how we think. We step on their necks. We don’t let anybody win nothing. If I can win, I want to win at all costs.”
The win-at-all costs mentality will come in handy for Harper. He will have a fight on his hands to not only stick around in Pittsburgh on the practice squad for the 2023 season, but also earn a spot on the 53-man roster following training camp.