Day Before the First Round Draft Notebook

Desperately Seeking Cornerback Help But Not Reaching

Put simply: The Steelers must bolster their cornerback corps for 2011 and beyond in this draft. But are either Texas’s Aaron Williams or Miami’s Brandon Harris worthy of the 31st overall pick? No, probably not, which is why there is a decent chance the Steelers trade out of the first round for the first time since 1967.

Williams vs. Harris is an interesting debate. The 6-foot, 205-pound Williams is bigger, faster and better in run support. Williams has the physical potential to be a No. 1 cornerback in the NFL. However, due to suspect hip movement, he also may end up being just a zone corner who struggles in man coverage (which is an apt description of most current Pittsburgh corners other than likely free agent Ike Taylor).

Some experts, like the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, believe Williams will end up moving to free safety (where he has no real experience). Finally, 2009 was really Williams’ only quality college football season; he was not very good last year for a bad Texas team that finished 5-7.

So Williams has the size and toughness the Steelers historically look for in cornerback prospects, but under Kevin Colbert, the organization has wisely drafted highly productive college players in the first round, all of whom were seen as having low bust potential. Williams does not fit either of those descriptions.

In contrast, Harris is a more surefire bet to be a quality starting NFL cornerback who can play well in man coverage. However, at 5-9, 190 pounds, he is not big, physical or very fast, and does not fit the Steelers’ prototypical cornerback mold. Harris will likely end up a good No. 2 cornerback, but does not have Williams’ upside — although Harris would be a much safer pick who would undoubtedly help at cornerback.

Pittsburgh fans should be rooting for three or four of the six potential first-round quarterbacks to be off the board when the Steelers’ 31st pick arrives, because teams holding seven of the first 13 picks in the second round could be in the market for a quarterback.

Trading with Arizona at No. 38 or Tennessee at No. 39 would still give the Steelers a shot at either Williams or Harris, particularly if neither has been selected when by the 31st pick.

Another possibility at that spot would be a tackle/guard prospect, such as Alabama’s James Carpenter, a player I have long liked in the second or third rounds but is now seeing his stock skyrocket to the early second round, or Villanova guard/tackle Ben Ijalana, whose stock has plummeted due to a late injury that kept him out of post-season all-star games and the NFL combine.

The Steelers then could use the extra pick(s) they received to move out of the first round to move back up to the middle of the second round to draft a cornerback such as Texas’ Curtis Brown or Virginia’s Ras-I Dowling, whose stock is rising due to great physical measurables. Dowling, though, has a history of injuries and suspect hips, which is why some teams project him as a free safety. I hope he does not end up in Pittsburgh. Players who are regularly injured in college are likely to have similar problems in the NFL.

If the Steelers draft an offensive lineman or go best player available by taking a defensive end like Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward in the first round, Clemson CB/FS Marcus Gilchrest would be a good pick at No. 63. Like Williams and Dowling, Gilchrest has suspect hips and is top-heavy. However, he was a better college player than Williams, stayed healthy throughout his career unlike Dowling, and actually has successful game experience at cornerback, nickel back and free safety.

Gilchrest is considered a lesser prospect because of his size (5-10), although current Pittsburgh free safety Ryan Clark is generously listed at 5-11. Gilchrest could help immediately in the nickel and at corner, and then make a natural transition to replace Clark as the starting free safety in 2-4 years.

Assuming the Steelers draft a hybrid CB/FS prospect like Williams, Dowling or Gilchrest, it would not be a surprise if Pittsburgh also drafted a smaller, slot coverage cornerback later, with Chattanooga’s Buster Skrine and Virginia Tech’s Rashad Carmichael both potential fits in the fourth round.

The Steelers kept six cornerback on their 2010 roster, but Taylor could be a highly coveted unrestricted free agent this offseason. William Gay would likely be a free agent if a CBA is reached in the next two months, Keenan Lewis will have to impress in training camp just to make the roster, and it may be time to finally part ways with special-teams star Anthony Madison, considering that fewer kickoffs will be returned next year (although you could argue that Madison’s greatest value is as a gunner on punts).

In other words, two rookie cornerbacks could make the Steelers’ roster. That said, odds are the Steelers only take one cornerback in this draft, especially if they end up with a coverage player like Harris, Curtis Brown, or Johnny Patrick from Louisville in the first two rounds.

Price Too Steep for Pouncey; Focus on Tackle

Despite reports to the contrary by the NFL Network’s Jason La Canfora, one trade the Steelers should not make is giving up their first- and second-round picks to take Florida guard Mike Pouncey somewhere in the middle of Round 1. I have long advocated for Pouncey as Pittsburgh’s first-round pick. But this price is too high, as the Steelers would be sacrificing their 2011 draft and ignoring their most pressing need at cornerback until the end of the third round.

Mike Pouncey is a very good player, a much better guard than center prospect, and the symmetry between him twin brother Maurkice would be awesome. If Pouncey was on the board when the Saints pick at No. 24, Pittsburgh may offer its first-, third- and fifth-round picks to move up to draft Pouncey. That is still a steep price. But the Steelers will not give up more for a player this year who wasn’t as good a prospect as last year’s first-round pick, no matter the bloodlines.

Long-time Steelers’ beat writer and draft expert Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider just wrote that he likes the idea of Pittsburgh giving up its first-, third-, and either a fifth- or sixth-round pick to move to Tampa’s No. 20 position and take Pouncey.

There are two main problems with this notion. First, many draft experts have recently projected Pouncey to go somewhere between No. 15 and No. 19, although I think this would be too high for a guard.

Second, the Bucs would be getting ripped off based on the trade-value chart; Pittsburgh’s first-, third-, and fifth-round picks add up to 746.6 points, while the No. 20 spot overall is worth 820 points. In fact, the Steelers would have to give up their first-, third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-round picks just to reach the trade-value chart; so if Tampa is willing to take lesser value and Pouncey is still on the board then that would be a great trade, but do not bank on this happening.

The Steelers’ much greater long-term need is at tackle, where only Max Starks is signed beyond 2011 (his contract runs out after 2012). With Flozell Adams likely retiring after 2011 and Willie Colon probably departing via free agency before 2012 if not sooner, the Steelers may need a new starting right tackle for 2012 from this draft.

Two Positions with One Pick?

An interesting prospect for the Steelers in the fourth- or fifth-round is Nebraska’s Alex Henery, clearly the top special-teams prospect in this draft. A former walk-on, Henery is the NCAA FBS career leader in field-goal accuracy (68 of 76, or 89.5 percent) and was also automatic on PATs (193 of 194) despite regularly kicking in poor weather conditions in the Big 12 North.

In addition, Henery was a two-year starter at punter, where he averaged 43.2 yards per punt as a senior. The knocks on Henery have been that despite a strong leg, he did not kick off at Nebraska and that he would be no better than a serviceable NFL punter.

However, the NFL’s decision to move up kickoffs to 35 would make that area much easier to master for Henery. Can he do worse than Jeff Reed or Norm Johnson on kickoffs? Plus, he is at least as good a punter as Mitch Berger or Jeremy Kapinos, who were the punters in the Steelers’ last two Super Bowls after Daniel Sepulveda was sidelined with season-ending knee injuries both years.

Unlike Ed Bouchette, I was high on Sepulveda when the Steelers traded two draft picks to take him earlier in the fourth round in 2007, but now consider him overrated. Despite a booming leg, his career has a been a disappointment due to injuries and inconsistencies, especially as a pooch punter, a special-teams nuisance for a team with a great defense. Sepulveda was set to be a free agent under 2009 rules, but was issued a one-year tender by the Steelers. Henery could push him for the starting punting job in camp, and then replace him when Sepulveda inevitably gets injured again, or is allowed to depart via free agency after 2011. The drawback? What happens if Henery goes down and he is the only special-teams kicker on the roster? Outside of Sepulveda, NFL kickers and punters rarely get injured, although teams almost never ask one player to handle both duties.

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  • t1mmy10

    very interesting insight. i like the breakdown of the options. us trading our 1st rd pick (either moving up or back) seems like the most likely situation at this point…if there isn’t a huge run of qb’s.

  • ecks

    i personally like the cameron heyward pick…we need more help in the trenches, either side.

    is gilchrest like a poor man’s rahim moore? i think read someplace that moore would project to nickel, LB and safety. I’d love to see that puzzle piece in Lebeau’s D

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