Take cover: Steelers behind AFC North pack in drafting cornerbacks

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have gotten creative to assuage the perpetual cornerback need each draft season. Two years ago, they signed two-time Pro Bowler Joe Haden, who's in line for an extension this offseason. In March, they gave free agent Steven Nelson a three-year, $25-million deal. Both are slated to start on the outside for the Steelers defense. Mike Hilton, an undrafted pickup two years ago, has 121 tackles from the slot.

Yet this month offers another batch of mock drafts pegging Pittsburgh to select a cornerback high in the draft. And personnel evaluators text back "Steelers need corners" without hesitation.

Although this year's logic is simple enough -- passing on a premium position at No. 20 overall might be tough if the top inside linebackers are off the board -- the Steelers might have avoided this scenario with a better track record drafting corners.

The franchise adept at finding quality receivers outside of the first round has struggled to locate starting corners in any round.

Since 2015, the Steelers have drafted five corners in the first five rounds. Two (Senquez Golson, Doran Grant) are out of the league. The other three (Artie Burns, Cam Sutton, Brian Allen) are reserves on the current roster. Burns, the first-round pick in 2016, lost his starting job after two years and has a cloudy future with the franchise. Burns was the franchise's first corner drafted in the first round since Chad Scott in 1997.

Among the Steelers' 10 corners selected since 2010, Burns is the only player to start more than 20 games with the franchise.

This trend has left the Steelers alone in the AFC North when it comes to developing talent at the position.

In Cincinnati, a pair of first-round picks -- William Jackson III and Dre Kirkpatrick -- are slated to start for the Bengals this season. The Steelers were interested in drafting Jackson, who went one pick ahead of Burns in 2016.

In Baltimore, former first-rounder Marlon Humphrey is a building block in the secondary, and mid-round find Tavon Young just signed a three-year extension.

In Cleveland, Denzel Ward made the Pro Bowl as a rookie.

To be sure, cornerback is one of the toughest positions to evaluate because of the mental and physical challenges for young players. And Ward was taken No. 4 overall. The Steelers never have the luxury of drafting that early in the first round, drafting between picks 22 and 30 over the past four rounds.

With no surefire top-10 picks among this year's corner class, the Steelers could treat this draft like good corners treat getting beat: Have no memory, win the next play.

The team is high on LSU's Greedy Williams, a long and lean corner with speed and ball skills but a lack of physicality, and Washington's Byron Murphy, whom many scouts and personnel execs around the league prefer for toughness and instincts.

Neither is a perfect prospect. Williams doesn't tackle well and faces work-ethic questions from some teams. Murphy's measurables (5-foot-11, 4.55 40 time) don't wow. There's not much separation among the top six cornerbacks, including Georgia's Deandre Baker, who visited the Steelers during the draft process.

The Steelers haven't done enough to replace Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker, and if Michigan's Devin Bush is available to them, he makes too much sense in the first round.

But general manager Kevin Colbert is more concerned with improving his bottom line than addressing positional need.

"We’re 9-6-1. We’re not going to hide from that," Colbert said this offseason. "We’re going to recognize that as we go forward for sure, but we have more than one position that we want to continue to look at and upgrade, and there may be players that are available to us that we don’t need that are going to upgrade us, and they make us that much better."

Colbert has 10 draft picks thanks to the Antonio Brown trade, including three of the top 66 and four of the top 83.

The Steelers can use one of those picks on a receiver with speed over the middle. Tight end and pass-rusher also are options. But a defense that utilizes sub packages most of the time can't have enough good corners.

Even if configuring the right defensive attack for 2019 won't reveal itself just yet.

"I think that nothing happens in a vacuum," coach Mike Tomlin said. "You have a vision of a style of play, in terms of what you expect your team to look like and the utilization of your talents, leaning on the strengths of your collective talents to work and minimize your collective weaknesses. All that being formulated with the consideration of trends within the game, what’s hot, how the game is being officiated and so forth. And things that affect the style of play."