I think we all agree on this: the Steelers could use a young cornerback whether free agent Ike Taylor is a member of the team in 2011 or not. If any of these mock drafts are accurate, and if a large portion of the fan base has its way next Thursday night, the Steelers’ top pick will, in fact, be a cornerback. But how would it impact the Steelers defense in 2011?
On Monday, Pro Football Talk’s Monday Gregg Rosenthal wrote about Houston’s reported love of LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson and how they might move up in the draft (as they would no doubt need to do) to pick him. In that post Rosenthal wrote this about Houston cornerback Kareem Jackson: “The Texans were desperate for a starting cornerback this year, to the point everyone fully expected them to take their top-ranked with their first pick, and that’s exactly what they did. They drafted Kareem Jackson, he started all season, and few cornerbacks in the NFL played worse last season.”
That last sentence isn’t an exaggeration. He was bad. Really bad. According to Football Outsiders’ game-charting data, no cornerback gave up more yards per pass or more yards after catch in 2010 than Jackson, and it’s not like this was some guy Houston picked up off the scrap heap; He was the 20th overall pick in the draft and the second cornerback taken (Cleveland selected Joe Haden with the No. 7 overall pick).
This doesn’t mean that Jackson is already a bust and will never pan out. More likely, it shows the struggles a rookie cornerback will go through during his first real taste of NFL action. There’s a large learning curve for the position and plenty of growing pains that come with the territory. Of the five cornerbacks taken in the first round in 2010, four of them (Jackson, Haden, Kyle Wilson and Patrick Robinson) either had trouble getting on the field or struggled once they did, while New England’s Devin McCourty was able to make an immediate impact. McCourty, however, seems to be the anomaly. Rookies don’t typically step right into that position and finish second in the league in interceptions. And even with McCourty’s gaudy pick totals, the Patriots were still 23rd and 11th against No. 1 and 2 receivers, according to FO.
I do wonder, when it comes to the Steelers, if there is a “grass is greener” mentality regarding Bryant McFadden, who doesn’t seem to have many friends in the stands when it comes to his play on the field. I’ll say this: If you asked me right now which player would be more productive for the Steelers in 2011, McFadden, or a hypothetical mystery corner they selected with the No. 31 pick, my answer, on April 19, 2010, would be McFadden for two reasons: 1) The aforementioned struggles of rookie cornerbacks (more on that in a second) and 2) I still don’t think McFadden was as bad as his reputation in 2010.
According to FO the Steelers were a top-five team against No. 1 and No. 2 wide receivers in 2010, but dropped to 18th against “other receivers” (Nos. 3-5), which suggests the bigger problem was still William Gay (and I thought he was better last year). You may remember him as the player repeatedly targeted in the Super Bowl.
(EDIT: As pointed out by Dr. Obvious in the comments, Gay’s 2010 season may have been better than I’ve given him credit for here, via FO’s individual metrics.)
I went back and looked at every cornerback taken in the first round between 2000 and 2010, and using Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value metric, found that the average first-round corner posted an AV of 3.7 as a rookie. By comparison, McFadden in 2010 came in with a 9, while Gay registered a 3.
The other factor involved here is how the Steelers typically work players into the lineup in what is by most accounts a complex defense that takes quite a bit of time to master. Since 2000 the Steelers have selected just four defensive players in the first round: Casey Hampton, Troy Polamalu, Lawrence Timmons and Ziggy Hood. The only player that played significantly as a rookie and made a positive impact was Hampton. Polamalu and Timmons looked lost at times as rookies, and it took Hood midway through his second season to really start to come on strong (and he certainly did).
This isn’t to say I don’t want the Steelers to take a cornerback (though, as I’ve said many times, I don’t want to see them take one just to take one; make sure it’s a good one) or that it would be a bad thing if said corner didn’t come in and instantly start as a rookie. As Timmons, Polamalu, Hood and even Rashard Mendenhall on the offensive side of the ball have shown a draft pick doesn’t need to dominate as a rookie to have a productive career. It’s more a cautionary tale to not expect too much from a rookie at a position where rookies don’t always perform well.
If anything, a rookie would likely be used in a role similar to the one McFadden was used in during the 2005 season when he was the No. 3 guy playing behind Taylor and Deshea Townsend.