PITTSBURGH – When the Steelers made the decision not to re-sign cornerback Keenan Lewis during the 2013 offseason, they did so with the thought that Ike Taylor still had two or three good seasons left in him as a shutdown cornerback.
But age appears to have caught up with Taylor, who turned 34 Sunday.
In 2013, Taylor was no longer able to cover an opponent’s best receiver all over the field by himself as his play slipped noticeably.
Taylor bounced back in the final month of last season and showed he still had at least one more season left in him. But the fact that he is close to the end of his career – he accepted a paycut to remain with the team in 2014 – means that bringing in a capable eventual replacement is a priority for the Steelers in this week’s NFL draft, which runs Thursday through Saturday.
The Steelers have nine selections in the draft’s seven rounds, including the 15th pick in the first round, which could be prime territory for the team to grab Taylor’s eventual replacement.
There are five cornerbacks considered first-round prospects in this draft, and each bring a little something different to the table.
Leading that list is Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard (5-11, 199), who showed he could lock down receivers last season with his aggressive, press-man coverage technique.
The issue for the Steelers, however, is that while they have played more press coverage in recent years, their defense still leans more toward zone coverage, meaning they have to project how well Dennard would transition to their style of play.
“You’re guessing as to whether they can (do it), and that’s where you just have to look at the basics of size, athleticism, awareness, instinct, ball skills,” said Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert. “Can he do what we’re going to ask him to do? It’s just an educated guess.”
One player the Steelers wouldn’t have to guess with is Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller, a 6-0, 190-pound corner who played a lot of zone coverage for the Hokies.
“Kyle Fuller is one of my favorite players in the whole draft,” said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. “What’s interesting about that corners is that most of the peronnel guys have (Ohio State corner Bradley) Roby and (Oklahoma State’s Justin) Gilbert as their highest rated corners just because they have better movement skills.
“Most of the coaches like Fuller and Dennard because they’re better football players today. You know what you’re getting. Fuller is my No. 1 corner, He can play on, off, he can play man or zone.”
Fuller is so versatile that he played linebacker at times for the Hokies during his career, including in a game against run-heavy Georgia Tech last season in which he blitzed on nearly every play.
Gilbert (6-0, 202) brings world-class speed to the position after running a 4.31 40-yard dash at the combine. He’s not as physical as Dennard or Fuller but he also is an accomplished return man, recording eight touchdowns during his college career – six on kickoffs and two on interceptions.
Roby (5-11, 194) wasn’t far behind Gilbert with his 40 time (4.34) but struggled at times in coverage in 2013 after a great 2012 season. He also was suspended for Ohio State’s season opener last year for his part in a bar fight and was pulled over for impaired driving two weeks ago, though he later plead guilty to a lesser charge. That could cause his draft stock to slip.
The final corner who could receiver first-round consideration is TCU’s Jason Verrett (5-10, 189) who is speedy (4.36 40) and tough in coverage. But because of his lack of ideal size, he might be relegated to playing exclusively as a nickel corner in the slot.
Teams that pass on corners in the first round will find some good prospects in later rounds.
Phillip Gaines of Rice and Utah’s Keith McGill are a pair of good-sized corners with outstanding speed and should be available when the Steelers pick in the second round. Gaines is 6-0, 193, while McGill is 6-3, 211.
In the middle rounds, Pierre Desir of Lindenwood, who had 25 career interceptions, or Clemson’s Bashaud Breeland would be solid selections.
In the latter rounds, Arizona’s Shaquille Richardson or Dexter McDougle of Maryland would be solid picks in what is considered one of the draft’s deepest positions.