Levi Wallace? No. Ahkello Witherspoon? No. Even Cam Sutton — no. None of these players can do what the Pittsburgh Steelers defense so desperately needs: A shut-down cornerback.
Though the top 18 of the 2023 NFL draft order will fluctuate from week to week until the end of the regular season, as it stands now, Pittsburgh picks ninth. Unless the Steelers defeat their remaining seven opponents (entirely possible, but highly unlikely), the organization will be in a position it hasn’t been in a long while — with a pick in the top half of the draft.
Pittsburgh’s last losing season (which also started at 3-7), 2003, found them in a spot to make a franchise-altering selection in the top 15. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger fell to them at No. 11, which turned the city and its football team upside down — for the better.
While it’s too soon to call him the future, the Steelers have a quarterback they want to (re)build around in Kenny Pickett. Despite the pleas of some of Steelers Nation, the team won’t be selecting a quarterback with its first pick next year.
Instead, Pittsburgh will address three significant areas of need: Offensive line, defensive line and secondary. The problem is elite talent is a rare commodity beyond the first round.
“Just like tackles, there are several potential first-round corners and some who could be Sauce Gardner-like. Joey Porter Jr. fits the mold of what the Steelers want with a corner — a long, physical press-man cover corner. He is the son of former Steelers linebacker and coach Joey Porter, and this team has shown it loves bloodlines.”
Dane Brugler, NFL draft analyst for The Athletic, tabs Porter going at No. 15 overall in his midseason rankings of the top 50 prospects in college football.
Of course, Porter’s draft stock (like all the others) could rise or fall based mainly on the NFL Combine in February and the Pro Days that follow.
As Mark Kaboly noted, to be in a position for a shutdown corner, a team needs to be in the top 5-10 of the draft order or have a ton of money to sign a free agent. The Pittsburgh Steelers have had neither, so they’ve settled for players in the mid-to-late rounds.
2023 could be the year Pittsburgh is low enough in the draft order to select an elite cornerback who can help stop quarterbacks from slicing and dicing the defense through the air.
Cornerback a Top Need for Steelers
The cornerback position is one that the Pittsburgh Steelers can’t avoid addressing in the offseason, whether via the NFL draft or free agency. The defense is 31st against the pass, allowing 2,721 yards and 22 touchdowns. Snagging one in the draft’s early rounds would certainly be the more affordable, (hopefully) long-term option.
Pittsburgh got burned the last time it went the first-round draft route with a corner. In 2016, after the Cincinnati Bengals selected William Jackson III — a player the Steelers coveted and recently signed — Pittsburgh made a panic move. General manager Kevin Colbert overreached for a player named Artie Burns with the 26th pick, one that will forever be known as one of the worst of his career.
Sure, the Steelers addressed a need after finishing 30th against the pass in 2015, but Burns wasn’t projected to go off the board until day two. NFL draft analyst Lance Zierlein gave him a prospect grade of 6.20 or “will eventually be average starter.” That’s not what you want from a first-round pick, and that’s exactly what they got.
Before Burns, the last corner Pittsburgh took in the first round was Chad Scott, No. 24, in 1997.
Aside from Cam Sutton, the Steelers’ best corner recently has been Ahkello Witherspoon. Unfortunately, he’s been sidelined with a hamstring injury since Week 3. Sutton is a free agent in 2023, and while he’s tied for the team lead in interceptions (3), Levi Wallace isn’t otherwise getting it done.
No matter how you slice it, the Steelers lack an elite shutdown corner that could take their defense to the next level.