14 Years of Steelers Cornerbacks and the Draft

Poll any number of Steelers fans about their teams biggest need leading up to April’s draft and I’d guess the majority of them point in the direction of cornerback — and that’s even if Ike Taylor re-signs before testing the open market. If Taylor leaves via free agency the position goes from being a need to something along the lines of Threat Level Midnight. Absolute chaos.

Whether it’s in the first round or not, it’s a good bet the Steelers are going to address the cornerback position at some point in the upcoming draft. Going back to the selection of Chad Scott in 1997, the Steelers have selected 13 cornerbacks over the past 14 years with varying degrees of success. Here’s a round-by-round look back at each player.

First Round: Chad Scott (1997) – By the end of his Steelers career, Scott, along with his partner in crime, DeWayne Washington, were the two biggest whipping boys in town. And while he may be best remembered for mediocre (at best) play from 2002-2004, he was actually a pretty solid corner the first four years of his career (he also missed the entire 1998 season due to a knee injury). The fifth cornerback off the board in ’97, the Steelers snagged him with the 24th overall pick and after the following defensive backs were selected earlier: Shawn Springs (No. 3), Bryant Westbrook (No. 5), Tom Knight (No. 9) and Michael Booker (No. 11). With the obvious exception of Springs, it’s safe to say that Scott had the best career of any of the corners selected in the first round that year, making an immediate impact as a rookie, even if he ended up lagging behind some other notable corners selected in the rounds after him, a list that includes: Ronde Barber (third round), Sam Madison (second round) and Al Harris (sixth round).

Second Round: Ricardo Colclough (2004), Bryant McFadden (2005) — The 2004 draft netted the Steelers a franchise quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) and a solid starting offensive tackle (Max Starks) in the first and third rounds respectively. Sandwiched in between them was Colclough, a player the Steelers traded up to select in the second round from Tusculum. It was easily one of Kevin Colbert’s biggest first or second round whiffs. A great athlete, he made most of his impact, such as it was, with the Steelers as a return man. It was an experiment that came to a screeching halt in Week 3 of the 2006 season when he muffed a late fourth quarter punt inside his own 10-yard line in a 28-20 loss to the Bengals.

McFadden, on the other hand, has had a bit more success in his two stints with the Steelers. As a rookie he was a huge contributor to the Super Bowl XL team, coming up with a big interception late in the fourth quarter of a regular season game against Jacksonville (the infamous Tommy Maddox game), and then making two game-saving plays late in the Divisional Round playoff game in Indianapolis.

Third Round: Hank Poteat (2000), Keenan Lewis (2009) — We still don’t quite know what we have in Lewis, but it still amazes me that Hank Poteat managed to play 10 years in the NFL. During his rookie season he was one of the better punt returners in the league, and even scored a touchdown in the final game at Three Rivers Stadium. So he has that going for him. He was also part of the 2002 secondary that was torched beyond all recognition by Browns quarterback Kelly Holcomb in one of the greatest playoff games ever played. JJ once mentioned during an earlier Podcast how that game earned Holcomb another five years in the NFL. I can’t disagree with that.

Fourth Round: Deshea Townsend (1998), Ike Taylor (2003) -- If you’re a long-time reader of Ryan’s other Steelers site, Heels Sox & Steelers, you might be familiar with his Captain Pantload Watch, a dedication to the worst of the worst in sports writing. A perfect example: This Mark Madden column shortly after the 2003 draft where he claimed the Steelers made their worst draft pick ever, using the space to call Taylor an idiot and ask why, if he was any good, he had to play his college ball at Louisiana-Lafayette instead of a real football school. The Internet never forgets.

Taylor’s biggest flaw as a player is that he can’t consistently catch the football, but what he lacks in hands he more than makes up for in coverage ability, speed, physicality and toughness. He’s been a regular in the Steelers defensive starting lineup over the past six years, and a damn good player.

Townsend came to the Steelers in the same draft class that produced Alan Faneca and Hines Ward, playing 12 seasons in Pittsburgh. The only Steelers defensive back to record more sacks in a career is Carnell Lake, while the only other Steelers player with at least 20 interceptions and 10 sacks in a career is Rod Woodson. (Admittedly, this is a flawed stat as sacks weren’t officially recorded until the early 80′s, but it’s still nice company.)

Fifth Round: Jason Simmons (1998), William Gay (2007), Joe Burnett (2009), Crezdon Butler (2010) – Like Keenan Lewis, the jury is still very much out on Butler after what was an impressive rookie training camp. Burnett is already gone and best known for dropping a potential game-clinching interception in the 2009 Bruce Gradkowski game against the Oakland Raiders.

William Gay emerged as a strong nickel back during the 2008 Super Bowl season, allowing the Steelers to let McFadden walk as a free agent. McFadden’s exit allowed Gay to be inserted into the starting lineup in 2009 and it was quickly and painfully obvious that he was in over his head, leading to the eventual return of McFadden via trade at the 2010 draft. Gay returned to his nickel role and seemed to be more comfortable than he was a starter.

Sixth Round: Daryl Porter (1997) — Never played a game with the Steelers but did play 55 games over five years with the Lions, Bills and Titans.

Seventh Round: LaVar Glover (2002) – Never played a game with the Steelers. Played two games with the Bengals during the 2002 season.

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    Well, for a team that has not been focused on Man to Man coverage system, the results are very much alligned with the defensive strategy. The obvious change in recent years, that sets a premium on the passing game, could be a pressing enough force to try and adjust the way we have considered the defensive backfield. A CB on round one or two seems like a foregone conclusion. Let’s wait and see.

  • MaG

    The funny thing about the report from Mark Madden is the high grade he gave the steelers in drafting Alonzo Jackson. Wow, he really gets it…. :)

  • Mike

    I really don’t see us taking a DB until the third round. You’ve got to remember that K Colb takes the best player available and won’t reach for a player that fits a “need”. Ike will be back, K Colb knows he can’t allow him to walk. With that assumption, we won’t miss the playoffs with what we have now. As rough as our DB depth is, we made it to the show and had a chance to win. Let’s not forget that most of us, if we were told we have 2 minutes on the clock, down by six, ball at our 20 and Big Ben is our qb, we would have been ecstatic and taken that scenario easily. Ben just missed some open receivers. I don’t think there are enough quality db’s to be taken in the first round by the time we pick 31st and again in the second round.

  • DC in ATL

    I wouldn’t have guessed it, but based on this Colbert has only drafted 4 CB’s in the first three rounds in the last decade. My bet is that if we retain Taylor, or replace him with a top free agent (Joseph from the Bengals?) we won’t draft a CB in rounds one or two.

    Somewhere I read that Colbert thought the CB’s were pretty deep in this year’s draft suggesting we could get good value in rounds 3-5.

    I would not be shocked to see Crezdon Butler to turn into a quality player. I stumbled across an article written after the 2009 draft trying to project the first round of the 2010 draft and was surprised to see Butler considered as a late first rounder at that point . I read a little bit about his senior year at Clemson and it appears teams threw away from him a lot, so he didn’t stand out in in the fall of 2009 like he did in 2008 which in turn allowed him to slip to round #5.

    Taylor didn’t become a starter until his third season in 2005. He was 25 and drafter in the fourth round. Butler turns 24 this May. Here’s hoping Butler can be as good as Ike and a key to our defense for the better part of this decade.

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  • Twokvin

    I remeber serveral years ago coming back to Raleigh from Canada. My wife and I just got our bags and were waiting for our ride when this white SUV pulls up and some dude in velvet purple shorts with matching velvet purple cut-off gets out and throws his golf bags on the curb. Turned out it was the infamous DeWayne Washington. I walked up to him and said I was a big “Steelers fan” and wished him luck. I think that was the year they went 6-10..

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  • Retet

    Please hire some taller guys. Our cornerbacks almost never intercept anything or even bat it down.  They just come up and make the tackle after the catch … usually after the 3rd yardage .