Two of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ top cornerbacks are pending unrestricted free agents, including CB1 Joe Haden, who wanted to sign a contract extension before the start of last season, but the organization demurred. Also potentially leaving Pittsburgh is Ahkello Witherspoon, 26, who was acquired from the Seattle Seahawks in September 2021 in exchange for a fifth-round pick in the 2023 Draft and went on to appear in nine games. No doubt the Steelers would like to retain at least one of the two in 2022, but if neither returns that would open up a big hole in the team’s pass defense.
Yet if Pittsburgh is willing to use a high draft pick at the position, Conor McQuiston of Pro Football Focus (PFF) regards the Steelers as the “best NFL team fit” for Trent McDuffie of the Washington Huskies.
McDuffie Has Been Described as an Athletic ‘Freak’
“The scheme fit is natural given that the Steelers majored in Cover 3, using it on 45.3% of early downs. McDuffie comes from a defense that called Cover 3 on 41.4% of early downs — sixth highest in the Power Five,” begins McQuiston.
“While the finer details of the coverage almost certainly differ between the systems, McDuffie excelled in Washington’s version. He was targeted at a fairly middling rate (11.1% of his coverage snaps), but his forced incompletion rate (13.5%) and coverage stop rate (3.13%) place him comfortably in the top third of all FBS defensive backs that have been drafted since 2015,” concludes the PFF analyst.
McDuffie—5-foot-11 and 190 pounds—has also been described as an athletic “freak,” half of the “most athletic corner tandem in the country,” a reference to fellow cornerback Kyler Gordon.
But the former track star has plenty of experience serving as Washington’s CB1.
“In three seasons at Washington, the Huskies’ shutdown corner never recorded a season grade below 80.0, including his first year as a starter as a true freshman,” writes Trevor Sikkema of PFF. “His 88.7 coverage grade this past year was best in the Pac-12, and his completion percentage when targeted (44.4%) was best in the conference among all cornerbacks with at least 100 coverage snaps.”
McDuffie is also a self-described “film junkie” who “posted a career PFF grade in the 80s, both in coverage and as a run defender,” concludes Sikkema.
All of which helps explain why NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein describes McDuffie as having “lockdown talent,” along with competitive energy that is “contagious.”
The latest Steelers news straight to your inbox! Join the Heavy on Steelers newsletter here!
Joe Haden Wants to End His Career With the Steelers
One challenge is that the Steelers haven’t been successful drafting cornerbacks, hence the team’s reliance on the acquiring talent at that position via free agency. That’s how the Steelers acquired Joe Haden, who signed with the team as an unrestricted free agent in 2017 after getting released by the Cleveland Browns.
It’s easy to underestimate the impact of Joe Haden’s coverage ability on Pittsburgh’s pass defense as a whole. Over the past two seasons the Steelers are 19-5-1 in games in which Haden has started, as compared to 1-7 without him. That includes a 7-3-1 record with him in 2021, vs. 1-4 when he was sidelined by injury.
The good news is that Haden has said he wants to finish his career in Pittsburgh, and Steelers insider Gerry Dulac believes the team will make an effort to re-sign him for at least another year.
The last time the Steelers used a first-round pick on a cornerback was in 2016 when the team drafted Artie Burns No. 25 overall. Burns appeared in 58 games over four seasons in Pittsburgh but left town after the Steelers declined to pick up his fifth-year option.
Burns went on to sign with the Chicago Bears in 2020 but suffered a torn ACL in training camp. He re-signed with the Bears in March 2021 and appeared in 11 games (with six starts) last season. According to Pro Football Reference, he recorded 23 tackles and six passes defensed while playing 254 snaps on defense and 60 snaps on special teams.
Follow the Heavy on Steelers Facebook page for the latest breaking news, rumors and content!
• Steelers G.M. Candidate Gets Major Endorsement from ESPN Commentators
• Rams’ Super Bowl Winning CB a ‘Free Agency Fit’ for Steelers: Analyst
• Steelers’ Kevin Colbert Talks Stephon Tuitt’s Football Future
• Ex-Steelers WR Antonio Brown to Perform at Rolling Loud Music Festival
• Ex-Steelers Standout WR Gets Second Chance in CFL