When Senquez Golson takes the field for the Steelers, the results will offer a glimpse into the future.
Obviously, first-rounder Bud Dupree is the main attraction, but I think we already know pretty much what he'll be asked to do: mostly the same things Jason Worilds and LaMarr Woodley were asked to do.
But Golson was never on my wish list. I don't see where he fits. And I'm intrigued, because he was clearly coveted by the Steelers, clearly a major part of their plans. As such, where he fits will tell us what coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler have in mind for the post-Dick LeBeau secondary.
Moreover, in a league where bigger corners suited to press coverage are increasingly coveted, Golson, all 68.5 inches and 176 pounds of him, is an extreme test of how effective the shortest and the lightest guys can be at cornerback as the NFL adjusts its enforcement of contact in the secondary.
I'd imagine most people had misgivings about his height. I don't have a problem with short guys. My issue with Golson was with depth, as in the depth of his cushions. On nearly every play I saw, Golson was eight yards or more off the receiver.
I'm sure the overwhelming expectation with a sub-5'9" corner is that they want to put him in the slot. And I have no problem with chasing a slot corner over bigger physical specimens there.
But for me, it's a huge projection to try to determine how well Golson's going to acclimate to that role. I haven't seen anything to tell me that Golson won't just be eaten alive by the Randall Cobbs and Julian Edelmans of the world until he adapts his game to the slot.
On top of which, you're bumping your highest-drafted corner in 11 years inside when Cortez Allen in 2012 and William Gay in 2013 were both very effective in the slot role. So even though Golson's working out of the slot in OTAs, it might be easier for him to distinguish himself on the outside, at least in this group.
Projecting talent was long a watchword for the Steelers' 3-4 defense. Undersized defensive tackles projected to end. Rush ends who had never dropped into coverage were converted to linebacker. In the case of secondary coach Carnell Lake, a college linebacker was moved to safety and eventually corner.
But in recent years, Dupree and Jarvis Jones were college LBs drafted to play the same spot in the pros. Stephon Tuitt came out of college as a 3-4 DE. The M.O. has been less projection and less conversion, presumably in an attempt to get younger players on the field sooner, in line with the wishes of ownership.
Either Golson is a departure from that -- projecting as a long-term slot corner and unlikely to play a big role early on -- or the Steelers want him to play cushioned coverage on the outside sooner rather than later.
Either way, I have misgivings. The corner I saw in college doesn't look like he'll be effective in the slot anytime soon, and the cushions seem less effective in general.
In hindsight, the NFL's emphasis on illegal contact in the secondary last season reminds me of watching the Pittsburgh Penguins in the mid-'90s. Back then, the NHL was supposedly cracking down on obstruction, and the Penguins built a roster on the assumption that the rule changes would create open ice to benefit their talented skill players.
And by playoff time, the team would look like Charlie Brown once again trying his hand at place-kicking, while the NHL pulled the ball away.
The nadir of this trend was the 1995-96 squad, which had the highest point differential and averaged almost a goal a game more than the next most prolific team in the Eastern Conference. They ended up losing to the much less talented Florida Panthers in an infuriating series that introduced me to the art of spackling when I kicked a sizable hole in my bedroom wall.
The lesson to be learned is that, just because new rules are introduced or existing rules are emphasized to put a premium on skill over physicality, don't expect that to produce competition that gives the advantage to skill. Friends of mine who follow hockey closely tell me the Penguins have yet to learn that lesson.
Golson is, in my book, a very skilled player. The Texans made Kevin Johnson the No. 16 pick, and I'd take Golson instead any day of the week. The two corners are actually quite similar, specializing in off coverage with sizable cushions. Johnson has some experience in press coverage and about three or four inches worth of height. But he's even skinnier than Golson and doesn't play the ball as well.
I respect both players' abilities, and seeing where Johnson went, think Golson was tremendous value where the Steelers grabbed him. But both players, and Golson in particular, have shortcomings in a league where attrition wins the day.
And in the NFL that I've watched, the move to crack down on obstruction of receivers seems to benefit teams that focus on physical play in the secondary.
Look at it from an official's perspective: With cornerbacks who initiate contact within five yards, officials must make a judgment call as to whether the contact stopped at five yards from the line of scrimmage or six, or even seven. That means the official needs to see the contact as well as where it happens on the field, which pretty much necessitates focusing directly on the matchup.
Meanwhile, cornerbacks who concede that five yards with a cushion make it simple for refs: Any contact is illegal.
Plain and simple, it's an easier judgment for an official to call illegal contact penalties against off coverage.
The physical players still incur many more penalties, but I'd contend they also get away with more. Since there's a benefit to obstructing a receiver and not getting called for it, the raw number of penalties is less important than the rate of penalization. Unfortunately, there's no data to be had on the number of missed calls.
That said, the champion New England Patriots led the league in 2014 with 28 combined defensive pass interference and defensive holding penalties. That's 1.47 per game, second only to the San Diego Chargers at 1.5. The year before, the league leader in such penalties was the champion Seattle Seahawks, who also had the highest per-game rate.
Which is not to say that the road to the Super Bowl is paved with yellow, but flags certainly aren't keeping teams out of the big game. It's at least circumstantial evidence that rules that attempt to curb such physical play don't hurt the chances of teams that employ the tactics.
To put it another way, when I compare Golson to Samuel, I get an adrenaline rush. The comparison fits like a glove, in my mind, and Samuel was arguably the best playmaking corner in the league for half a decade, even if he was never a prototypical shutdown guy.
But that rush dies when I try to think of who, in today's NFL, gets the results Samuel did playing that style. I think the league simply isn't as conducive to that type of corner having success. In my mind, too many quarterbacks are too good at pre-snap reads to be giving receivers a free release so often.
That said, if you want a corner to play off-man and cover-3 looks, I think they got the best guy in the draft for that, even if he is short and svelte.
So while I think Golson is a skilled, open-field player miscast in a league that rewards bigger guys who can manhandle receivers, I've been wrong before. And if I'm wrong this time, the Steelers got themselves a gem.