Steelers Draft Prospectus: Cornerback

In part three of our position-by-position Steelers Draft Series, Frank Tursic provides a needs analysis of the Steelers' cornerbacks and the draft's potential answers.

Pittsburgh lost Bryant McFadden to the Arizona Cardinals in free agency, but it has a replacement on the roster in William Gay, who filled in admirably as a starter while McFadden missed six games due to injury.

According to metrics compiled by Football Outsiders, he was the best cornerback in the league last year in yards allowed per pass attempt (3.3). This was due largely to allowing only a 46.4% completion percentage on passes thrown in his direction. Clearly, Pittsburgh feels it has its starter opposite Ike Taylor, but at a minimum will look to add depth for competition at nickel corner with Deshea Townsend.

Pittsburgh remains primarily a zone coverage team, and values aggressiveness and tackling ability in its cornerbacks. Playing out of a base cover-3 defense, Steelers cornerbacks can key on the run first before dropping back in coverage.

Secondary coach Ray Horton has said, "We want to see the ball. That's the most important thing. Sometimes when you see teams who play a lot of bump-and-run, you'll see a running back run right behind a guy because he has his back turned." Steelers cornerbacks must also be very good athletes. Vertical jumping ability and 40 times remain important indicators, but just as significant is change-of-direction ability. The best test to measure this quality is the 3-Cone (3C) drill.

In the following graph, note that only one cornerback prospect ran the 40-yard dash in a time under 4.4 seconds at this year's NFL Combine:

Year 40 VJ 3C
2009 1 8 10
2008 11 3 (16)* 7
2007 7 5 5
2006 4 17 5
2005 11 18 6
2004 5 8 4

Note: Numbers tabulated from NFL Combine results. Totals equal number of prospects exceeding thresholds set as follows: 40 < 4.4sec, VJ > 37", 3C < 6.9 sec.
* Number in parentheses is an estimated total to correct for inaccuracies in measuring 2008 VJ.

Vertical jump numbers, as well, are only middle-of-the-pack, suggesting a lack of elite-level talent compared to previous years.

Dick LeBeau's defense doesn't require shutdown cornerbacks in order to be effective, instead relying on zone coverage schemes. Prospects with above-average speed, agility, and the ability to tackle and make plays can be found in later rounds. These types of players fit the LeBeau scheme well.

The following table takes into account the NFL Combine results along with the number of tackles and plays made during the prospect's college season and assigns a grade to that prospect based on a 5-star system. "Plays" is the sum of passes defended (PD) and interceptions (Int). A total of at least 10 will earn the prospect a star in that category. The criteria to earn a star in each of the remaining categories are listed in the first row of the table's header.

    * >=5-10/190 * <4.45   * <6.9 * >=40 * >=10 Total 5 Star
Player Proj. Rd Size 40 VJ 3C Tackles Plays Rating
Vontae Davis 1 5-11/203 4.4 36" 6.75 78 2Int/8PD 5 Star
Darius Butler** 1 5-10/183 4.41 43" 6.92 40 0Int/4PD 2 Star**
DJ Moore 1 or 2 5-9/192 4.56 39" 7.01 54 6Int/6PD 2 Star
Alphonso Smith 1 or 2 5-9/193 4.47 34" 7.09 36 6Int/13PD 1 Star
Jairus Byrd** 2 6-0/207 DNP DNP DNP 74 4Int/14PD 3 Star**
Sean Smith 2 6-4/219 4.5 34" 6.92 40 5Int/5PD 3 Star
Sherrod Martin 2 or 3 6-1/198 4.48 36" 6.6 80 4Int/6PD 4 Star
Macho Harris 2 or 3 5-11/198 4.65 34" 6.68 44 6Int/7PD 4 Star
Mike Mickens 2 or 3 5-11/186 4.53 35" 6.94 66 4Int/9PD 2 Star
Asher Allen 2 or 3 5-10/194 4.48 35" 6.93 44 0Int/7PD 2 Star
Coye Francies 3 6-1/185 4.63 36" 6.81 69 3Int/3PD 2 Star
Keenan Lewis 3 6-1/195 4.47 33" 6.89 31 3Int/8PD 3 Star
Kevin Barnes** 3 6-0/187 4.45 38" 6.72 20 2Int/5PD 1 Star**
Jerraud Powers 4 5-9/188 4.51 36" 6.97 47 2Int/8PD 2 Star
Joe Burnett 4 5-9/192 4.58 35" 6.68 44 4Int/11PD 3 Star
DeAngelo Smith 5 5-11/194 4.5 35" 7.27 50 2Int/9PD 3 Star
Lardarius Webb 5 5-9/179 4.35 36" 6.77 55 2Int/7PD 3 Star
Dom. Johnson 6 6-1/198 4.5 32" 7 44 5Int/13PD 3 Star
Ellis Lankster 6 or 7 5-9/191 4.48 DNP DNP 63 3Int/7PD 2 Star
Brice McCain 6 or 7 5-9/185 4.33 36" 6.74 34 1Int/5PD 2 Star
Don Carey 7 5-11/192 4.49 32" 6.87 42 5Int/6PD 4 Star

Notes: * = one of 5 star rating criteria. **Butler missed 3 games due to injury. **Byrd participated in no drills due to injury, long speed is a concern. **Barnes missed 5 games due to injury. Data primarily compiled from NFLDraftScout. DNP – did not participate. Most corners do not lift so KEI is not applicable for this evaluation. Certain prospects (such as Malcolm Jenkins--high #1 pick) excluded.

Darius Butler – Vontae Davis will be long gone by the time the Steelers pick in round 1, as should Butler. The two are the most athletically-gifted corners in this draft. Butler possesses fluid hips and quick feet. It's his lack of ideal size and playmaking skills that are the main concerns. However, playing a full season his junior year, he had 2 interceptions and 8 passes defended (PD). He would warrant strong consideration if available at 1.32.

D.J. Moore/Alphonso Smith – These players are similar in their capabilities as well as overall draft value. Certain teams could have either rated much lower on their boards due to lack of ideal measurables, but both are playmakers. This would set up an interesting round 1 dilemma, but I think Pittsburgh would pass on Moore and consider Smith depending on who else was available.

Jairus Byrd – Byrd is a perfect zone coverage corner prospect for Pittsburgh. He has ideal size, and is a ballhawk who likes to keep the play in front of him. He's a very strong tackler and might be an even better fit at free safety. Byrd could be available in round 2 due to concerns about his 40-yard speed as some teams won't draft a prospect without having confirmed times (NFL Combine or Pro Day). Remember, Pittsburgh was able to draft Heath Miller toward the end of round 1 for similar reasons.

Sean Smith – A rare physical talent that doesn't come along too often at cornerback, he'd probably be considered a mid-second round pick. Smith has excellent physical ability and is very agile (6.92 sec. 3-Cone) for a 6'4" 219 lb. player. Smith is also a playmaker, but will gamble jumping routes and is a drag down tackler.

Sherrod Martin – Played free safety in college, but has the physical abilities to make the transition to NFL corner. Looked very fluid at the Senior Bowl and has outstanding triangle numbers. He's a four-star player who represents excellent value in round 2.

Macho Harris – Ran a much better time at his Pro Day, but lack of deep speed will limit interest in him primarily to zone cover teams. Harris makes up for this with tremendous short area quickness and agility (6.68 sec. 3-Cone). He's an aggressive tackler, but is a gambler on pass defense. This habit will need to be addressed at the professional level. He adds value as a punt returner and was also used as a weapon on offense.

Mike Mickens – Missed 3 games during the season and still posted 4 interceptions and 9 passes defended. An underrated athlete who is a willing tackler (66 total) and has the size to add more weight. Natural zone cover corner.

Kevin Barnes – Another player who had his season cut short due to injury. He possesses prototypical size, speed, and athletic ability (38" vertical, 6.72 sec. 3-Cone) and isn't afraid to put a hit on a player. He'd have a higher star rating if not for the injury. Will probably be available in round 3.

Joe Burnett – Three-year starter and playmaker. Had 4 picks as a senior finishing with 16 for his career as well as 35 passes defended. Burnett gets a quick break on the ball and is aggressive. He likes to play off coverage, but can also press. He's solid in run support and is a good wrap-up tackler. Burnett also excels as a return specialist -- averaging 14 yards per punt return and 28.3 yards per kick return. He's made a visit to the South Side for a private interview and would represent value in rounds 3 or 4.

DeAngelo Smith – Played some games at free safety during his senior season, and looked more comfortable there. Lacks the recovery speed and short area quickness at corner, but has good ball skills and is a decent tackler. His draft stock has dropped since the end of the season, but he has position versatility which could interest Pittsburgh.

Other Late Round Prospects – Lardarius Webb is a tremendous athlete who looked very good in the Texas vs. The Nation game as well as at the NFL Combine. He has cover skills and also averaged 28 yards on kick returns and 16 yards on punt returns. Brice McCain is another speedster (4.33 40) with tremendous return skills, and Ellis Lankster is a very aggressive tackler (63 total) and playmaker. He played very well at the Senior Bowl and was a surprising non-invite to the NFL Combine. He represents value late in the draft and would help immediately as a slot corner and special teamer.

Do Not Draft – These are players that are not best fits for the Steelers defense: Asher Allen (lack of playmaking skills), Coye Francies (lack of speed and playmaking –- body catcher, character), Keenan Lewis (press corner only, not a tackler).

In summary, cornerback value and team needs are aligning with Pittsburgh's second or third round selection. From there, they could choose from a number of highly-rated prospects such as Jairus Byrd, Sherrod Martin, Mike Mickens, Kevin Barnes or Joe Burnett. Several add value as potential free safeties or return specialists. Pittsburgh could also choose from late-round developmental types like Lardarius Webb and Brice McCain, who possess elite return skills, or a player flying under the radar like Ellis Lankster, who is a very good schematic fit for LeBeau's defense. Lankster could contribute immediately as a special team gunner and contend for playing time at nickel corner.

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