It’s been pretty well documented that once free agency begins the Steelers top priority will be to sign cornerback Ike Taylor to a contract extension before somebody else can give him a blank check on the open market, where he will be one of the top players available at the position (John Harris would like you to incorrectly believe he’s better than Nnamdi Asomugha). The cornerback situation around here isn’t exactly a secret, and it’s pretty much agreed that the Steelers could use Taylor (or a comparable player in free agency) in their 2011 lineup given the makeup of the position, which currently consists of rookies, unproven/inconsistent young guys and players that just aren’t starting quality at this point.
Pittsburgh didn’t address the position until the third and fourth round of this year’s draft, selecting Texas cornerback Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen out of the Citadel. They’ll be joining veteran Bryant McFadden, as well as previous draft picks Keenan Lewis and Crezdon Butler as players under contract for 2011 (remember, William Gay is also a free agent). Needless to say, there’s not exactly a Darrelle Revis in that group, even if I would like to think (or hope) that at least one or two of the young guys can become useful players in the near future. All of this has helped make re-signing Taylor the focal point of the offseason.
We know what talent remains if he leaves, and we know any replacement in free agency is going to be just as expensive, if not more expensive than Taylor. But is there a significant risk in giving him big money when the offseason officially starts?
A couple of weeks ago I posted about the Steelers willingness to let players leave a year too early as opposed to a year too late, comparing it to the Yankees and how they’re on the hook for Derek Jeter’s absurd contract even though he’s pretty much useless as a Major League shortstop at this point. Taylor is going to be 31 years old this season at a position that is dominated by youth. Obviously, there are positions in the NFL that have shorter shelf lives than others. Example: Running backs will burn out faster than almost any other position on the field, while defensive linemen can be productive players well into their 30′s.
I was browsing around the Football Outsiders player pages on Monday and took a lengthy look at Taylor’s, and the one part that stood out to me — and concerned me — was his 2010 similarity score which paired him with a rather infamous part of recent Steelers history: DeWayne Washington’s 2002 season. Also of note: his 2008-10 similarity was Jeff Burris between 2000-02.
Both players, Washington and Burris, began to wash out of the NFL within the next season. In 2003, when Washington was 31 (the same age Taylor will be in 2011), he had lost his starting job to Deshea Townsend, wasn’t a member of the Steelers in 2004 and was out of the NFL by 2005. Burris never played in the NFL past the age of 31.
None of this means Taylor’s production and ability will fall off a cliff next season, or that his career will mirror that of Washington or Burris. They’re just comparisons. Admittedly, somewhat concerning comparisons. Also concerning is what I alluded to earlier — cornerback is a position dominated by youth.
Let’s use 2010 as an example. Across the NFL there were 74 cornerbacks that started at least six games during the regular season, and here’s how they broke down by age:
Of the 74 players that started at least six games only nine of them were 31 or older, the group that Taylor will fall into in 2011. The list: Sheldon Brown (31), Quinten Jammer (31), Nate Clements (31), Champ Bailey (32), Andre Goodman (32), Terrance Newman (32), Antoine Winfield (33), Charles Woodson (34), Ronde Barber (35).
Obviously, as Woodson, Bailey and Barber have shown you can be a productive cornerback well into your 30′s. But those guys also appear to be the exception. I’ll also point out that even though they’re still very good players, they’re not quite as good as they were in their primes, and Ike Taylor, in his prime, was never as good as Charles Woodson or Champ Bailey.
I think I’d still like to see Taylor in a Steelers uniform in 2011, but I don’t think it’s as simple as sign Taylor or bust. It’s very reasonable to question how good he’ll be a year or two from now, what sort of contract and guaranteed money he’ll be carrying at that point and whether or not he’ll be worth it.