Shane Walton, just for kicks

Kevin Colbert wanted to draft a quarterback. Bill Cowher, being the defensive-minded coach that he is, thought the first pick for the Pittsburgh Steelers should be a cornerback. After QB Ben Roethlisberger fell into their lap in round 1, the Steelers boldly moved up in round 2 in order to secure CB Ricardo Colclough. With the recent additions of veteran corners Terry Fair and Willie Williams, grabbing Shane Walton off of the waiver wire is a curious move.

If the Steelers can work through B.J. Tucker's immigration problems, there could be 9 corners in camp, Nashville Dyer rounding out the list. With the recent addition of Shane Walton, should we increase that number to ten?

Walton is neither particularly big (5-10 5/8, 190) nor blazingly fast (4.62). His rather pedestrian measurables for a cornerback justified, at least for the St. Louis Rams in the 2003 draft, a fifth round designation. As a CB, Walton's niche on the Steelers' roster is unclear.

As a free safety, where he was pressed into duty in St. Louis, Walton is a much more intriguing prospect.

Former Steelers defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis moved cornerback Rod Woodson to safety in Baltimore, "It gave us the ability to blitz the nickel player and have (Woodson) end up covering. We wanted a safety like a third corner so we didn't have to substitute. That gives you more flexibility."

Looking at safeties currently on the roster in Pittsburgh, there really is no true "third corner." Mike Logan, Chris Hope, and Troy Polamalu all project, at least in Steelers' scheme, as strong safeties. Add to that list Russell Stuvaints and Ainsley Battles. UDFA rookies Yaacov Yisrael and Jannsen Patton, who was a cornerback in college, better fit the mold of safety as third CB.

In fact, Patton (5-11, 181, 4.59) shares similar measurables with Walton. In these players, the Steelers are keen on finding a ball hawking safety who can cover and support the run, backing up new starter Hope.

Given that Yisrael and Patton have no NFL experience, the reason for signing Walton is clear. If Hope suffered a season-ending injury, the Steelers would be woefully thin at free safety.

What does Walton bring to the table?

A first team All-American at Notre Dame, Walton intercepted 7 passes during his senior year, running two of them back for touchdowns. The big play corner made his mark on the Senior Bowl, victimizing QB Chris Simms, taking an interception 99 yards to the house. "Anytime a cornerback touches the ball, his goal is to get into the end zone," said Walton. "You don't get the ball too much."

Since Woodson left Pittsburgh, the Steelers have lacked a big play threat in the secondary. Cowher once looked to Scott Shields, a freakishly large and fast safety out of Weber State, to fill the big shoes of Woodson and Carnell Lake.

Shields picked off 23 passes during his college career and his 4 interceptions during his rookie season with the Steelers tied for the team lead.

While Shields possessed good ball skills, he was considered a soft tackler, perhaps a bit shy of contact. He quickly fell from Cowher's favor, yielding to cagey veteran Brent Alexander.

"You can only do so much with the opportunities you get," Shields complained about his demotion from starter. "You can't go out and knock somebody's head off if the opportunity doesn't present itself.

"I think I did good with my opportunities. I made couple good tackles and showed I could be physical. I'm not sure why it happened, but it did."

Eventually, Shields was cut and has endured a rather undistinguished career in the NFL. A free safety needs to be able to tackle.

"If he's a hitter and he's a striker," former Steelers defensive coordinator Jim Haslett once said of Shields, "you can put him at linebacker on the dime, you can put him inside, you can move him around."

Both Shields and Walton were primarily soccer players in high school, Walton being the better talent of the two. Both proved to have a nose for the football on the gridiron. "They're very different sports [football and soccer]," Walton has said, "but in soccer you try to anticipate the pass before it's made, and it's the same at cornerback."

Walton's experience and success in soccer helped his confidence in football.

"I play a position where I'm supposed to get beat," he said. "Playing cornerback, you've gotta have a short memory. There's nothing less than the best, and when I'm out there talking, I'm going to let people know I'm the best. I like to talk. Defensive lineman, offensive lineman, refs, it doesn't matter. I'm having fun out there."

Making the transition from soccer to football in college will likely help Walton in the NFL. Switching from corner to safety probably seems easy in comparison.

"I tell you what, it was a real humbling experience," Walton said about his switch of sports. "I never sat on the bench with anything I did, and my sophomore year, I sat on the bench the whole year. I went from one extreme to the other. I went from being the man on the soccer field to basically nothing on the football team."

Walton will be a long shot to make the squad, returning from a back injury that cost him most of the 2003 season in St. Louis. He's likely equal to the task.

"I'm a competitor. I don't want to win easy. I don't want it to come easy to me," he said. "I like a challenge."

And unlike Shields, Walton will be ready for contact.

"Nobody can teach you that," he said about the big hit. "You either want to or you don't."

At Notre Dame, he often let the opposition know he was out there and that he owned the field, "If (the other team's players) are going to catch the ball on us, if they're going to run the ball on us, we're going to put the hat on them. That's just expected."

Walton would demonstrate his physical play in the Rams' preseason game against the Oakland Raiders. Raider RB Justin Fargas tried to dive into the end zone, but Walton slammed into him and forced a fumble that the Rams recovered.

Walton could have been a great soccer player, but he loves to play football. Somewhat like Terry Fair, if he can fully recover from his injury, the Steelers found themselves another diamond in the rough.

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