MOBILE -- It had been years since Tennessee cornerback Cameron Sutton patrolled the back end of a defense as a safety, but you couldn’t tell from the way the four-year starter played this week in Mobile.
Tasked with manning new positions as a single high safety or a slot cornerback, Sutton put together a strong week, catching the eye of Pittsburgh Steelers scouts with his performance on the field.
“I met with the Steelers for a little bit earlier this week,” Sutton said. “They didn’t really give me an indication of where they’d like to see me play (in the secondary), but wherever they need me and whatever system they need me to play in, I’m willing to do that. It’s just about the opportunity to be able to be out there doing what I love to do.”
The athleticism and range seem to be there for Sutton to make a move to safety, but tackling and run fills would be a big adjustment. Despite his natural tools, a full-time position switch could be a challenge for Sutton, who has had to shake the rust after a long hiatus from the position.
“I haven’t played safety since high school,” said Sutton. “We’re short on some guys, so I’m stepping in and embracing that role. We have a short scheme for the week, so there wasn’t much to pick up on. You obviously have to know what everyone on the field is doing anyway, so it just makes you play that much better when you can communicate and know everyone else’s job too.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Sutton spent just 2.7% of his snaps in the slot this past season at Tennessee, but was there often this week, rolling up as a safety in man coverage. Sutton closed on the ball well from off-coverage, and has the experience in press to be effective at the line of scrimmage as well.
“The biggest thing for this week was just understanding the short week in scheme that we put in,” said Sutton. “But football is football, the effort and mentality doesn’t change. The X’s and O’s are always gonna be there, we’ve just gotta make them breathe. So whether it’s safety, nickel, corner, wherever they need me to be out there, I’m gonna adjust to it on the fly and try to make plays.”
On the little tape I've seen on Sutton, he got his hands on a lot of passes at Tennessee, finishing as the school’s all-time leader in passes defensed with 37. Out of the 45 games Sutton played in for the Vols, he started every single one, an impressive mark at any college, let alone a top SEC program. He’s cerebral, communicates well, passes the eye test as an athlete and has enough size at 5-11, 182 to perhaps project to a versatile role at the next level.
WHY THE STEELERS?
Pittsburgh could be interested in a player such as Sutton for several reasons. Finding a slot to develop as William Gay’s replacement is crucial, as Senquez Golson simply can’t be trusted physically after almost three years off the field. The team values communication, smarts and athleticism in the slot, all components Sutton seems to bring to the field in droves. If his technique looks strong enough on tape, the Steelers could be interested in his potential conversion to a nickel role.
If Sutton does enough during the pre-draft process to convince teams he can succeed at safety, Pittsburgh’s interest could pique even more. Each of the past two years the team has experimented with three-safety looks, and may have done so more this year if not for injuries to a couple key players and a resurgent season by Lawrence Timmons in coverage.
Sutton’s presence could potentially allow Sean Davis to slide into the box or slot in big dime packages, allowing the Steelers to keep a strong run defender near the line of scrimmage without sacrificing much in coverage. It would be an interesting wrinkle, but one with which the Steelers have tinkered in the past.
Sutton returned just four kickoffs in his career at Tennessee, but was heavily utilized as a punt returner during his sophomore and junior years. The corner made good on his 39 returns during that time, returning three for touchdowns while averaging almost 19 yards a return in 2015. The Steelers desperately need a shot in the arm on special teams, and Sutton would give them juice as a return man that could allow them to move Antonio Brown off of the punt return team.
STEELERS EYEING ILLINI
- Illinois defensive end Dawuane Smoot played with his hand down the past two seasons with the Fighting Illini’, but has seen a decent number of reps from a two-point stance this week. He’s looked good rushing from the new spot, and that success would intrigue a Steelers front office that was out in full force at Thursday’s practice.
“There are a bunch of teams that have been talking to me about stand-up,” said Smoot. “I did it my first couple years in college, so I’m used to it. It kind of feels weird going back to it now and trying to get acclimated back into it, but it’s turned out all right this week.
“I’m first looking at their knee, their inside knee, because that’s the first thing that’s going to move,” he added. “For them to kick back, they gotta move that inside knee. So right off of that, I’m moving, quickly. I’m looking at their shoulder tilt right after that, and I’m looking at their hands. I’m looking at the outside hand, trying to get the outside hand. If you can beat the outside hand, you win. If I can’t get the outside hand, and I know he’s way too far past me, I just counter back inside.”
That type of mental processing from a college edge-rusher is impressive, and it’s one of the biggest things Bud Dupree lacked when he first joined the Steelers. Like Dupree, Smoot has an explosive first step but his hands are much better at the top of the arc than the Steelers’ second-year pass rusher.
Smoot isn’t an elite athlete, but he’s a good one, and his ability to spin-counter back inside when the edge is shut down makes him a dangerous threat on passing downs. If he shows he can drop in coverage (something he did on only two snaps last season, according to Pro Football Focus) and move well in space during pre-draft workouts, Smoot will have a number of 3-4 teams interested in him as well.
- Carroll Phillips is the other Illinois defensive end in Mobile, and he probably projects more naturally to an outside linebacker role at 6-3, 237 pounds.
Having said that, Phillips isn’t nearly as polished as Smoot, and will be a 25-year-old rookie this fall. He doesn’t corner very well, and struggles to set up pass rushes with a plan of attack pre-snap. Phillips has shown some discipline mistakes against the run and, while reading his keys, getting caught out of position a few times this week.
It’ll be interesting to see how he tests in Indianapolis, but Phillips is probably a mid-late Day 3 option who'll need to prove he can drop and cover in space for most teams to be interested. I don’t expect Pittsburgh to be one of those teams, at least early in the draft.