With Artie Burns struggling, Steelers could choose cornerback in first round
Artie Burns had tears in his eyes as he stood at his locker after a Saturday practice in September, two days before the Pittsburgh Steelers would play their third game of the season.
Burns had been informed he would be sharing playing time at cornerback with Coty Sensabaugh. That decision effectively ended Burns’ days as a starter with the Steelers, and it is why the franchise likely will be spending another high-round pick on a corner in the upcoming NFL Draft.
Despite signing veteran Steven Nelson to a three-year contract in free agency, the Steelers are expected to dip into what analysts say is a strong cornerback draft class. It could happen as early as the first round.
If the Steelers are unable to land one of the coveted inside linebackers Thursday, they could use their top pick on one of three corners projected to go among the top 32 picks: LSU’s Greedy Williams, Washington’s Byron Murphy and Georgia’s Deandre Baker.
All because Burns, the team’s first-round choice in 2016, took a Grand Canyon-sized step backward in his development.
Coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged as much in March at the NFL annual meeting. A reporter stole one of Tomlin’s favorite phrases when he asked which direction Burns’ arrow was pointing.
“It hadn’t been going up,” Tomlin said, “and that’s just realistic. But he has an opportunity to do something about that.”
The Steelers almost certainly won’t exercise the fifth-year option on Burns’ contract. But Tomlin indicated Burns will get a chance to compete for a job in training camp, which will be difficult considering his competition on one side is Joe Haden and Nelson on the other.
“Artie has got to find his confidence. He really does,” general manager Kevin Colbert said in February. “That’s something that we talk to him about. He’s got to re-find it. Does he have the talent? Have we seen it? Have we seen him be productive? We have, but, unfortunately, last year he took a step back, and we’ll find out if he can find it.”
Burns officially fell out of favor with the coaching staff after the sixth game of the season. His confidence was shaken to the point that he rarely got onto the field. In the final 10 games, he logged just 15 snaps on defense.
“You have to really look at the ability to overcome getting beat,” former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik said in a recent draft conference call. “The game is such a passing league, so how does a kid’s confidence hold up on the next play? You lost track of the ball, got thrown out of position or misplayed it, but watch the next play and see if they are coming back at him. Is he being aggressive at the line of scrimmage? Those are things you want to look for.”
The Steelers targeted Nelson in free agency because of his ability to move around in the secondary. He had experience playing slot corner for the Kansas City Chiefs before moving outside in 2018.
“We like that versatility, and we believe that we need that versatility, that inside-outside capability,” Tomlin said. “So we’re excited about the addition of him.”
Given the proliferation of passing in the NFL and depth of this rookie class — “There are significant numbers in the secondary,” Colbert said — the Steelers could try to change their recent poor luck in drafting corners.
Burns is the most high-profile of the cornerbacks drafted by the Steelers in the past decade who underachieved, be it because of injuries or a lack of talent. The list includes Curtis Brown, Cortez Allen, Senquez Golson and Doran Grant. Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen, each coming aboard in 2017, still are scratching for playing time entering their third seasons.
Although the 2019 class lacks a pure top-10 talent, the trio of Williams, Murphy and Baker is expected to be available if the Steelers hold onto their No. 20 selection.
Murphy and Baker made predraft visits with the Steelers in April, as did four other cornerbacks. Murphy and Baker were the highest-rated players, regardless of position, to be invited to UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
“With corners, you have to bring them into your building,” Dominik said. “You’ve got to get to know the character of the guy and see what kind of swagger and what kind of confidence he has as well as his intelligence level.
“You have to look back at that competitive nature and pure athleticism.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .