In 2019, the Pittsburgh Steelers had their best cornerback play in the entire Mike Tomlin era. Both Joe Haden and Steven Nelson played flawlessly through most of the year. So why should the Steelers be worried about the cornerback position in 2020? There are several factors that would lead one to believe each player is due for some regression for the upcoming season. Let’s go through each player individually.
Joe Haden will enter the 2020 season turning 31 years old. Going into his eleventh season in the league, it would not be surprising to see a regression in Haden’s play. We rarely see corners continue at a high level into their 30s and beyond. Joe Haden has thus far defied the odds, and had two very good seasons in a row. In 2019, he had a near career high in interceptions with five. He had a very respectable 70.3 rating from Pro Football focus as well. https://www.pff.com/nfl/players/joe-haden/5532?season=2019
At some point the regression is coming for Joe Haden, the question is when. Haden has had his share of injuries over his career which further the concern over his level of play. The good news is that the Steelers excellent pass rush can mask most deficiencies the secondary might have. The Steelers will have their fingers crossed that they can squeeze one more high level season out of this veteran corner.
Steven Nelson was a late third round draft pick by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2015. Nelson was an average corner on a bad Chiefs defense through his first four seasons in the league. His play did improve in 2018, leading to Kevin Colbert to sign him to a 3 year/ $25.5 million dollar contract.
In his first season in Pittsburgh, Steven Nelson had a breakout year. Seemingly out of nowhere, Nelson had his best year as a pro with a 80.5 PFF grade. https://www.pff.com/nfl/players/steven-nelson/9531?season=2018
Was this a sign of things to come, or a temporary blip in his career? Nelson is only 27, and should be entering the prime of is career. The Steelers may have just caught lightning in a bottle with this free agent signing. The concern being last season could be an outlier given the fact it was so much better than any of his other four years in the league.
Best of the rest:
The Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the best slot-corners in all of football. The only question regarding Mike Hilton is whether or not he ends up being a cap casualty. Hilton is a restricted free agent, and with the team right up against the cap he is at least a candidate to be let go. With good news coming from the CBA talks, hopefully this can be avoided.
Cam Sutton is the primary backup at all three corner positions. After three seasons, and only two starts, there are still many questions on what the Steelers have in Sutton. If an injury were to occur, the Steelers would be in uncharted territory with Sutton starting.
Justin Layne was considered a project when the Steelers drafted him in 2019. After a shaky pre-season, Layne climbed past Artie Burns as the fourth corner on the depth chart. Burns is a former first round bust who has played his last game in a Steelers uniform. Who was Kevin Colbert’s biggest draft bust: Artie Burns vs Jarvis Jones There is reason for optimism that Layne will continue to improve this season, but not to the point of making a major impact in 2020.
It is not a coincidence that both Steelers corners are coming off career years while the pass rush was completely dominant in 2019. The entire secondary benefited from perhaps the best front seven in the entire league. Having acquired an elite free safety like Minkah Fitzpatrick also helped their cause greatly. All of these factors helped bolster the play at the cornerback position.
There’s no question both Joe Haden and Steven Nelson had excellent seasons in 2019. There is however a regression coming for these two corners. Whether it will be enough to raise concern for the Steelers is yet to be determined. Health may be the most important factor for the Steelers cornerback position. This defense may not need more than average play as long as both veterans stay healthy.