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Harris: Steelers must realize Taylor's value

The Steelers want their cornerbacks to play like Ike Taylor, look like Ike Taylor and run like Ike Taylor.

That's obviously what coach Mike Tomlin had in mind when he said new cornerback Cortez Allen, a fourth-round draft pick from The Citadel, is a "height, weight and speed prospect along the lines of Ike Taylor physically."

Tomlin stretched the truth, but it made for a good sound bite.

Immediately after cornerback Keenan Lewis was drafted in the third round two years ago, former secondary coach Ray Horton parroted Tomlin's words: "You would probably compare him to another Ike Taylor."

If only the Steelers' other cornerbacks performed like Taylor.

Lewis is close to being considered a bust.

Unless the Steelers acquire another cornerback who runs a 4.17 in the 40 as Taylor did at his pro day, never misses a game because of injury and starts in three Super Bowls in six years, their fruitless search for his successor will continue.

Allen and third-rounder Curtis Brown of Texas ran in the 4.5 range in the 40 at the NFL Combine. That's not quite Taylor speed.

If an appeals court in St. Louis rules in favor of NFL players, Taylor could become a free agent as early as this week.

So, why are the Steelers searching for an imitation of Taylor when they have the original?

Instead of re-signing Taylor last offseason as the team normally does with key players entering the final year of their contract, the Steelers gambled.

Big mistake.

By allowing Taylor to become an unrestricted free agent, the Steelers must bid against other suitors and meet Taylor's price -- bad business for an organization that prides itself on calling the shots.

Potential Taylor suitors Carolina, Chicago, Denver, Dallas, Houston, Minnesota, Philadelphia, St. Louis and the New York Jets didn't draft a cornerback in the first round.

That's telling, according to new Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake, who called Taylor "one of the more underrated cornerbacks in the league. I hope we get him signed."

Lake said the lack of NFL-ready cornerbacks in the draft didn't help the Steelers in their search for Taylor's potential replacement. The Steelers selected cornerbacks in the third and fourth rounds.

"At the very elite level of cornerbacks, the talent was even shallower," Lake said. "As you got in the second and third round, you saw teams really go after corners, especially in the third round. That's where people saw the most depth at the position."

The Steelers are in a bind. They have to re-sign Taylor, even if it means overpaying him. They wouldn't have had to overpay if they had re-signed him a year ago.

Director of football operations Kevin Colbert discussed the state of Steelers cornerbacks without Taylor:

"It's an unknown. A lot of guys haven't played a lot. You can look at it either way. Will they or will they not produce once given the opportunity• You feel good about the potential. But that's the same thing we're taking about with any draft pick. We're not going to know until they get extensive playing time. If a kid hasn't had the opportunity to prove himself, we're just guessing."

Makes you wonder who are the real stars on the team. If Taylor is so important to the defense, why did the Steelers permit him to become a free agent?

"A lot of teams realize if you prevent the receiver from catching the ball, you don't have to worry about interceptions," said Dave-Te' Thomas of Scouting Services Inc., which produces the NFL Draft Report for 27 of the 32 teams. "But you do need that one big playmaker back there. When Troy Polamalu got hurt last year, they had Taylor but they didn't have anyone on the other side. It put more pressure on Taylor because the other cornerback wasn't covering his assignment the way he should. At least a third of Taylor's plays were out of his territory."

The Steelers are built for the next two seasons. Their future is now.

As key players such as James Farrior (36), Hines Ward (35), Aaron Smith (35), Casey Hampton (33), James Harrison (32), Brett Keisel (32), Ryan Clark (31) and Polamalu (30) are phased out, they will take the heart of the team with them.

If No. 24 leaves, the Steelers' rebuilding process could begin sooner than anyone thinks.

Even with the next Ike Taylor on the roster.

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