Steelers offseason positional outlook: Cornerbacks
Editor’s note: This is Part 11 of a 12-part series breaking down the Pittsburgh Steelers at each position in the offseason. All salary cap information courtesy spotrac.com.
If it’s the Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s probably an offseason in which they have question marks at cornerback.
This year is no different for a franchise that despite moderate-to-historic success on defense over the past two decades is seemingly in an endless search for a duo of reliable cornerbacks.
This cycle perhaps stings more than usual because it was only about 16 months ago when the Steelers appeared to have their best unit of cornerbacks over the past decade: a Pro Bowl performer in Joe Haden, a coming-into-his-own first-round pick in Artie Burns and a diamond-in-the-rough slot gem in Mike Hilton.
But as the calendar flipped to 2019, questions abound, particularly with Burns. Through the first 1½ seasons of an NFL career that began as a 2016 first-round pick, Burns looked like a cornerstone of the Steelers defense. But he struggled down the stretch in 2017, and his streak of 27 consecutive starts ended in Week 3 of this past season.
Although initially it was a timeshare at right cornerback between Burns and veteran Coty Sensabaugh, eventually Sensabaugh took over the fulltime role. Burns played just 14 defensive snaps over the final 10 games of the season.
That doesn’t sound like the type of player to which a team would want to commit close to $10 million. And that’s a decision the Steelers have to make this spring: Do they exercise Burns’ fifth-year contract option for 2020, currently estimated at $9.59 million? That is extremely unlikely (though those contracts are guaranteed for injury only) at this point. In fact, perhaps a better question is whether the Steelers will even want Burns on the team next season at $3.05 million?
But Sensabaugh is a free agent, and Burns is worth keeping around to hope he find himself because the Steelers don’t have an obvious choice to start opposite of Haden. Cameron Sutton is the proverbial next man up, and he has shown to be a smart and versatile member of the secondary since being a third-round pick in 2017.
But Sutton couldn’t secure much playing time late in his second NFL season (32 defensive snaps over the final nine games), so it can’t be assumed he could step in as an every-down outside corner. Certainly, the same can be said about any of the Steelers’ other internal options (Brian Allen, Herb Waters, Trey Johnson), none of whom has played an NFL regular-season defensive snap.
In short, like they have done 12 times over the past 12 drafts, expect the Steelers to select another cornerback to add to the group. It’s also a decent bet they sign a veteran, be it re-upping with Sensabaugh or bringing in someone else. Sensabaugh was a bargain at the $2.6 million he was paid over the past two seasons; this offseason’s addition might be of a similar financial profile.
When it comes to big money spent on a veteran cornerback, the only way the Steelers figure to do that in the coming months is with Haden. As steady in the secondary as he is in the locker room, Haden is a good fit in Pittsburgh — but he hasn’t come cheap, signing a three-year deal worth $27 million in August 2017.
Haden is eligible for an extension as he enters the final season on that contract. The Steelers would seem to have little choice but to extend him.
Hilton’s contract has expired, but as an exclusive rights free agent he will be back on the Steelers’ terms. Despite decreased usage by the Steelers late in the season, Hilton has established himself as a dependable (if undersized) slot corner.
Offseason outlook: Cornerbacks
• Joe Haden, 1 year left on contract, $11.9 million cap hit for 2019
• Artie Burns, 1 year left on contract (plus option), $3.05 million cap hit for 2019
• Cameron Sutton, 2 years left on contract, $861,432 cap hit for 2019
• Brian Allen, 1 year left on contract, $645,000 cap hit for 2019
• Herb Waters, practice squad
• Trey Johnson, injured reserve
• Coty Sensabaugh, unrestricted, $1.61 million cap hit in 2018
• Mike Hilton, exclusive rights, $555,000 cap hit in 2018
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Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at email@example.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .