The Steelers secondary did pretty darn good this past season, considering the limited amount of talent they had available to them. Despite having only one starting caliber cornerback on the active roster, the Steelers were a fumble away from appearing in the AFC Championship game, for an NFL record 16th time. With last year’s second round draft pick, CB Senquez Golson, healthy and ready to return after missing his entire rookie season with a shoulder injury, and an upcoming draft deep with secondary talent, the Steelers have a golden opportunity to remake and upgrade their secondary with athletes who can make a difference. Coverage and pass rush go hand in hand, in that an improvement in one of those areas can help the other out. With the Steelers, they need to lead off and address the secondary first. The weak link along the defensive front is Steve McLendon, and he really isn’t that bad of a nose tackle. The weak link in the secondary last season was everyone other than Willie Gay and Mike Mitchell. Brandon Boykin didn’t play much and won’t return, while Ross Cockrell showed potential. Antwon Blake, who was forced to be a starter, was injured and overmatched by the taller receivers he faced, and Shamarko Thomas just hasn’t developed above filling more than special teams role.
While the secondary isn’t completely devoid of talent, they need to develop it and add to it. Currently, the Steelers have two legitimate starters returning to the secondary, Safety Mike Mitchell and Cornerback Willie Gay, who is better suited to play inside. If there has ever been a draft where the Steelers need to select a defensive back first, and often, this upcoming NFL Draft is the one. This draft is deep with talented defensive backs, topped only by defensive line talent. The first two cornerbacks to come off the board are more than likely going to be Vernon Hargreaves and Jalen Ramsey, but when it comes time for the Steelers to make their selection with the 25th pick, they will have plenty of options to choose from, with Eli Apple possibly being one of them. Kendall Fuller, the most talented of the four Fuller brothers to come out of Virginia Tech, would look good in a Steelers uniform, as would Xavien Howard from Baylor, but the most intriguing prospect could be William Jackson III out of Houston.
The performance that William Jackson III put on at the combine makes him a legitimate candidate to be picked anywhere between the bottom of the first round, to the top half of the second round. He has the size needed to go against the the bigger receivers in the AFC North, 6-0/190 lbs, and the speed to run with them, 4.37 in the 40. He also has a nose for the ball, leading the nation with 15 passes defended in 2015, to go along with 5 interceptions and 2 touchdowns. While he can get pushed around in press coverage from time to time, adding about 10 pounds of muscle should take care of that issue. The only thing that seems to be keeping William Jackson III from being considered an elite prospect, has been his relative lack of exposure from playing at the University of Houston. If he is sitting there at 25, he would definitely be a good fit for the Steelers, who could use the size and speed combination that he brings.
The Steelers also have needs at Safety, with the loss of Will Allen, and there are plenty of options there as well. Karl Joseph, out of West Virginia, is considered by some to be the best safety in the draft this year. The best fit for the Steelers just might be one of these three, TJ Green from Clemson, Miles Killebrew from Southern Utah, and Darian Thompson from Boise State. All three are athletic, possessing decent ball and cover skills, but are known for their willingness to lay the lumber on receivers. Their enthusiastic willingness to support the run defense also fits the mold. The Steelers should be able to snatch a safety in the second round, with first round skills, who can contribute almost immediately. With Ben Roethlisberger most likely playing under his final NFL contract, the Steelers have a three to maybe four year window to win another championship. With the NFL’s most lethal offense, the Steelers will need these new young defenders to contribute sooner rather than later. What the braintrust does with the first two days of this draft will go a long way towards determining whether Ben Roethlisberger gets the opportunity to hoist another Lombardi Trophy before the end of his hall of fame career.