Steelers early-round draft picks primed boost to secondary
For years, fans complained the Steelers didn't prioritize adding cornerbacks drafted in the early rounds onto their roster.
All of a sudden in 2016, they have acquired first- and second-round picks at the position.
So where do Artie Burns and Senquez Golson fit?
Burns (2016 draft) and Golson (2015 draft but injured last season) were first- and second-round picks. And that doesn't count 2016 second-round pick Sean Davis, who was a cornerback during much of his career at Maryland and who saw reps as a slot cornerback during the first practice of training camp Friday.
Can they be broken in at once? Can each find a role immediately? Even if they prove they're physically and mentally capable, that leads to the proverbial good problem to have: finding room for them.
Teams typically make first- and second-round picks with the thought they will make immediate impacts.
“You expect them to play, yes,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said Saturday. “It's going to be a challenge (to play them all). But they're going to get some reps (in training camp), so we'll see what they can do.”
Even if Golson and Burns live up to the potential that made them high draft picks, playing them both extensively as first-year players can be problematic because having so much inexperience at one position can be hazardous.
Also, there's the issue of squeezing them onto a depth chart that already has returning starters the team is not unsatisfied with in William Gay and Ross Cockrell.
“Really, I don't pay any attention to none of that,” Burns said of the depth chart and how he fits in and what role he might play. “I'm here for reps.
“You can be starting at camp, and then come (regular) season time, you can be third string.”
The Steelers proved that twice last season in their secondary. Since-cut cornerback Cortez Allen went from starter to, at best, No. 4 cornerback in a span of a few weeks. Same with Shamarko Thomas at safety.
So when Golson spent the first two practices of camp as the top slot cornerback and Burns as an outside corner on the No. 2 defense, it was notable but in no way a certain reflection of where on the depth chart both might be when the season opens Sept. 12 at Washington.
Or even by later this week.
“I'm not really sure where I am on the depth chart right now,” said Cockrell, who, at 24 and a Steeler for less than 11 months, is one of the elder statesmen of this cornerbacks corps.
“This is really good group of young guys.”
Cockrell and Butler talked about how the lines in the NFL are blurring between safeties and cornerbacks. Early returns suggest the Steelers' plan for Davis involves finding subpackages in which he can play at safety or slot cornerback.
A similar plan could evolve for Golson.
Butler concedes he is delaying the process of devising a regular game plan for the defense until he sees Golson and Burns on the field and has a grasp of what they can do.
“As far as playing-wise, I feel like a rookie,” Golson said.
“But it's my second year being around the guys, so I'm more relaxed now.”
With a year of mental reps under his belt, Golson said six weeks of practice time and four preseason games — assuming he stays healthy — is “definitely more than enough time” to be prepared for the regular season.
The 21-year-old Burns wouldn't speculate on a timetable.
For both, as Butler noted, their play at St. Vincent over the coming weeks will help tell the story.
“For us, if they can do some of the things we think they can do,” Butler said, “it will help us out and give us some depth and give us some options.”