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Pittsburgh Steelers' pre-draft position watch: Cornerback

4/29/2015

Overview: The Pittsburgh Steelers lost Brice McCain, who tied for the team lead with three interceptions last season, to free agency. Ike Taylor, arguably the Steelers’ best cornerback since Rod Woodson, retired after age finally caught up to him. Those losses leave the Steelers with William Gay, who is going into his ninth NFL season, as their most dependable cornerback, and a lot of questions at the position. Cortez Allen regressed badly last season, so much so that the fourth-year veteran lost his starting job and then his role as nickel back before going in injured reserve in early December with a broken thumb. Antwon Blake showed promise last season after getting his first extended NFL snaps on defense, but the former undrafted free agent, Gay and Allen are the only cornerbacks with meaningful NFL experience on the roster. To say the Steelers need help at the position is an understatement.

Draft priority: Extremely high. The Steelers allowed opponents to complete 54.2 percent of throws that covered at least 20 yards last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, worst in the NFL. That sobering statistic reinforces the reality that the Steelers have to make a position they have neglected for too long in the draft a priority. The Steelers haven’t drafted a cornerback in the first round since Chad Scott in 1997. They haven’t taken cornerbacks with their first- and second-round picks since Woodson, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, and Delton Hall in 1987. It would surprise no one if one of both of those streaks are broken by the end of Friday night.

Last player drafted at position: The Steelers took Shaquille Richardson with the first of their fifth-round picks last year. Richardson did not make the 53-man roster and briefly spent time on the Steelers’ practice squad before they waived him with an injury settlement. Richardson is not with a team after getting released by the Kansas City Chiefs last week.

Dream pick: Trae Waynes, Michigan State. The 6-foot, 186-pounder is widely considered the best cornerback in the draft and for good reason. Waynes helped anchor the Spartans’ secondary over the previous two seasons, and he bolstered his stock by running the 40-yard dash in 4.31 seconds at the NFL scouting combine. Waynes is a better NFL prospect than former Spartans teammate Darqueze Dennard, who was drafted 24th overall last year by the Cincinnati Bengals. The Steelers passed on Dennard at No. 15 to take linebacker Ryan Shazier. They probably won’t get the chance to take Waynes, who could go somewhere in the early teens, unless they trade up in the first round.

Practical pick: Kevin Johnson, Wake Forest. The Steelers really like Johnson and are probably crossing their fingers that the 6-foot, 188-pounder is still available when they make their first pick. Johnson is fluid and confident and he probably could help the Steelers right away. Not saying the Steelers will pull the trigger if Johnson is still on the board when the No. 22 pick is up, but they sure will be tempted.

He said it: “Could be the cleanest overall corner in the draft, has been rising up boards. He can play inside, outside. He tackles, he's physical enough, not overly physical, but physical enough. I think he's going to go somewhere I would say, call it 16 to 25, somewhere in that range, really solid football player, and as the defensive back coaches have gotten involved, he's gotten pushed up a little bit. The coaches love him because he's also an intelligent kid.” – NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock on Johnson.