Steps Steelers Need To Take To Fix Secondary

Pittsburgh’s defense gave up a deplorable 4350 passing yards this season, which ranked them 30th among the 32 teams (with only the Saints and Giants doing worse.) It’s a glaring reason this unit may be overhauled for 2016, but another reason is the number of free agents in the defensive backfield.

Among those ready to hit the market when free agency opens for the 2016 season are CB William Gay, S Robert Golden, CB Antwon Blake, CB Brandon Boykin, and S Will Allen. Also, CB Ross Cockrell is an exclusive-rights free agent.

With a lackluster passing defense, it’s anyone’s guess as to which of these players, if any, are retained by the club. The 4 corners named all played extensively throughout the season, but non are a lock to be on the 2016 roster at this moment.

But for all of the fuss about how bad the Steelers passing defense was, there were several bright spots. For example, William Gay, was easily Pittsburgh’s best corner:

However, for as good as Gay performed, Antwon Blake did the opposite:

Quietly, Ross Cockrell and Brandon Boykin were favored by PFF, ranking 21st and 23rd respectively, and higher than big name corners such as Darrelle Revis and Aqib Talib. Blake, however, was ranked 167 among the 172 players listed:

After each season ends, we are barraged with mock drafts and hypothetical “fits” for each team and their needs. Every season, analysts suspect the Steelers will take a CB in the first round, a position they have passed on with their top pick since taking Chad Scott in 1997, with the reasoning being a lack of proven talent from the previous year, and lack of players under contract.

Depending on how the Steelers attack their own free agents, they could put themselves in a good position to once again choose the best player available. Whether that player is a corner or safety, will depend on the players who return.

Boykin appears to be the biggest wildcard. After not playing for most of the year, he may command the highest dollar of the Steelers free agents, and it’s anyone’s guess if he wants to return. The Steelers also drafted a similar player, Senquez Golson, in the 2nd round of last year’s draft. It was Golson’s season-ending injury during training camp which brought Boykin to town. While Boykin may be the best corner on the roster, there may not be enough room, roster or cap-wise, to merit having both.

Cortez Allen is a long forgotten name as well, having started the season at corner and being placed on IR shortly after. Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Ed Bouchette said on 93.7 the FAN, that he “maybe” saw Cortez Allen around the Steelers facilities “once or twice” during the season. This is while other players on IR, such a Le’Veon Bell and Maurkice Pouncey, made it a point to be around the team throughout the season. Kelvin Beachum, injured midway through the season, even traveled with the team to Denver.

While under contract, it would take a miracle for Allen to return. He’s already gone in his own mind, and the team can save over $4 million to spend on other needs.

Ross Cockrell is an exclusive-rights free agent, which likely means he will be back. Rated in the top 25 corners by PFF: imagine what a full year, including camp, could do for a player who was claimed off of waivers after the final preseason roster cuts.

Both sides know William Gay is a good fit for this team. If I had to guess, he will be back.

That leaves a running tally of Gay, Golson, and Cockrell as the probables, along with last year’s 4th round pick Doran Grant, who is rumored to try his hand at safety as well. If he’s not a good fit at that position, Grant could be the 4th corner, but it leaves 2 safety spots vacant.

I believe Robert Golden is good enough to give a chance at the starting role. Shamarko Thomas still looms but might be a lost cause, even as a special teams contributor. Will Allen might be getting older, but his value as a veteran, both on and off the field, may still be enough to get him another year’s contract. He might have to wait until after the draft, as the team may not commit to him early and let him explore his options.

Antwon Blake is the dark horse, a free agent that may draw zero interest from other teams, but is a coaching staff favorite, despite his shortcomings. News surfaced that Blake was hurt and that may have played into his poor season. Of the free agents, I feel he’s the most expendable. He knows the system, but there may not be room for him on a roster with Gay, Cockrell, Golson and Grant, especially if Boykin’s services were retained.

This leaves the Steelers plenty of options on whether to draft a CB, or S to bolster their secondary. Mike Mitchell’s spot is solidified, so it would be wise to monitor how the team pursues signing Allen and Golden. If both return, the team may opt for the best available player with their first pick, which could be a CB… or even a TE or NT. They could then come back around and resign Blake or Will Allen, provided other teams haven’t already (which I believe will be the case) to add depth to their secondary.

If this happens, the question will remain as it has for years: have the Steelers fixed their secondary?

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