Ahead of the 2023 NFL Draft, I repeatedly cited the need for the Steelers to not only address the cornerback position but potentially double dip at the position, allowing for room to fill holes at both the boundary and slot positions. Following Pittsburgh’s selection of Joey Porter Jr with the first pick of the second round, I figured that Pittsburgh would target the slot position later in the draft. The problem: in between the Steelers’ fourth- and seventh-round selections, intriguing options at the position, including Louisville’s Kei’Trel Clark, TCU’s Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, and South Alabama’s Darrell Luter Jr, came off the board.
With true slot options lacking, Pittsburgh went an interesting route, double dipping at the position and adding another lengthy, physical cornerback prospect, Purdue’s Cory Trice Jr. In my last film room, I focused more on Trice’s skills that would help his transition to boundary cornerback at the next level, briefly mentioning the intriguing positional versatility that he could offer early in his career. In today’s film room, we will center our focus around aspects of Trice’s skill set that could allow him to serve as a utility man in sub-packages and likely serves as his best avenue towards early playing time.
A former safety at Purdue, I don’t think a full-time transition to his original position is in the cards, with his best fit at the next level being a boundary corner. Rather, I think despite having a vastly different skill set, Trice’s best path to the field might follow that of former Steeler Cam Sutton, gaining playing time as a #4 corner through sub-package versatility. Particularly with the Steelers lacking great options at the dime backer spot following the departure of Terrell Edmunds, Trice’s size, physicality, and tackling ability should make him a candidate to compete for sub-package snaps in that role.
The most intriguing trait that could help Trice become a versatile, sub-package weapon at the next level stems from his unique combination of size and physicality. Possessing a similarly long-limbed frame to Joey Porter Jr, Trice appears to have a frame that can hold more weight than his counterpart. His physicality, both in coverage and when attacking downhill as a tackler, speaks for itself.
Here, Trice aligns with outside leverage to the wide bunch set, working against a formation in boundary look from Michigan’s empty set. Pre-snap, Trice begins to creep downhill, anticipating the screen, triggering quickly to beat the kick-out block and finish with a physical stick at the catch point. It is extremely rare to see defenders trigger so quickly on the screen that they arrive in time to break up the pass, but that is precisely what Trice does on this rep. In coverage, he is at his best when allowed to work downhill and use his physicality to his advantage.
Trice’s physicality translates well to the run game as well, where he does a nice job of triggering quickly and evading blockers both on the perimeter and in the box. While his ability to shed blocks on the perimeter leaves quite a bit to be desired, he plays with linebacker-level physicality as a tackler when able to stay clean.
Here, Trice works from outside leverage as the overhang defender to a nub tight end set, keying the end man on the line of scrimmage for his run/pass read. He sees the tight end come out with a low hat and working to kick out the stand-up edge, Trice folds inside to fill the vacant C-gap, forcing the back to stop his feet and work laterally.
As the back attempts to cut toward the sideline, Trice aims low and wraps up for a nice leg tackle, killing the play behind the line of scrimmage. This rep shows great understanding of his teammates’ responsibilities, allowing him to spill the run to his edge defender, as well as his understanding of reading and executing his pre and post snap keys. That includes both the EMOLs high hat/low hat, and the back’s intended path.
Where many corners will make occasional splash plays in the run game but lack down-to-down consistency in getting involved as second- and third-level tacklers, Trice is more than willing to get involved when offenses fail to account for his presence in their blocking schemes. On the first rep, Trice communicates motion before diagnosing the crack/replace scenario, folding inside, and getting involved in a gang tackle to stop the back after a short pickup.
On the next rep, Trice sees the tight end climb to the second level. Scraping over the top to replace the vacant linebacker, he bring his hips on contact to finish with a physical tackle. I believe that Trice has untapped potential as a box player, particularly in sub-packages, an area where the team still has yet to identify a trustworthy solution.
Much of sub-package dime backer work centers around the ability to function at a high level as an underneath zone defender, an area where Cam Sutton flourished. Trice’s best zone coverage work at Purdue came when tasked with functioning as a flat zone defender in Cover 2 schemes. He has shown a nice feel for mid-pointing routes and baiting quarterbacks on levels concepts.
Working in a Cover 2 scheme against Maryland here, Trice does a phenomenal job of mid-pointing the level’s concept, keying the quarterback’s eyes, and sinking under the seven cut to secure the timely turnover. His range and ball skills in zone coverage could allow him to take on some of the post-snap safety rotations previously handled by Cam Sutton, which would allow the Steelers to get creative in their deployment of Minkah Fitzpatrick.
In summary, while I believe that down the line, and potentially as early as year 2, Trice could be ready to contribute as a sub-package boundary corner, he likely tops out as the clear #4 corner on the depth chart coming out of training camp. As he continues to refine that aspect of his game, he could serve as a much-needed solution to the team’s vacancy at the dime backer position, previously filled by Cam Sutton and Terrell Edmunds, both of whom will be playing elsewhere next season.
While there is not typically an avenue to playing time for a #4 corner, talent wins out. If Trice is able to impress the coaches enough in camp, they will find a way to work him into their sub-package plans, similar to what they did with Sutton. Likewise, in an ideal world, Pittsburgh exits the 2023 season with plenty of sub-package snaps to evaluate both of their cornerback draft picks. Trice’s size, run support, and ball skills could make him an intriguing matchup against Mark Andrews and other top-flight tight ends.