By Jeremy Hritz
Cornerback has also been a weak position for the Steelers, and there is the possibility heading into 2022, that will continue. With Joe Haden aging out and not being re-signed (at least that’s what it seems), and with Cameron Sutton not playing at the level desired, there are many questions surrounding the cornerback position. Yet be assured, there are answers in house, and the Steelers CBs could be even better next season with a few adjustments.
As mentioned, Haden will not return, and it’s bittersweet. Sure, the Steelers hope to upgrade the position with someone younger with blossoming skills, but his character, leadership, and camaraderie will be missed within the locker room. If only there was a way for Haden to accept a league minimum salary, or even a modest salary on a one-year deal, the Steelers would jump on that. I just don’t see Haden forfeiting such compensation.
Following the 2020 season, Sutton signed a 2-year deal, and he will be with the team once again in 2022. While Sutton did not have a bad season, he wasn’t great either, and much of this can be attributed to being a starter on the outside for the first time in his career. You could make the argument that he will only continue to grow and develop, but again, the hope factor doesn’t always produce tangible results. Sutton recorded 2 interceptions, 1 forced fumble, and 6 passes defensed in 2021, but the Steelers will need to see more production from him if the secondary is to grow. Though his game wasn’t outstanding, it was not bad enough for the Steelers to seek an alternative, and he will be back in his starting role for the 2022 season.
The biggest name in the cornerback room for the Steelers this offseason is Ahkello Witherspoon, who was picked up via trade with the Seattle Seahawks at the beginning of the season. At 6’2, 195 pounds, Witherspoon is a rangy receiver with natural coverage abilities who stood out as the Steelers best corner through the final games of the season. In limited play, Witherspoon picked up 3 interceptions and 9 defensed passes, and he demonstrated the ability to be the team’s featured corner on defense. Problem is, Witherspoon is a free agent, and NFL scouting departments all witnessed his high-quality play, possibly pricing himself out of Pittsburgh. You’d have to think as a result of his play, he has earned yearly contract average of at least 8+ million per year, if not more. With the cap space that the team has, they would be best served to re-sign Witherspoon to provide for some continuity, but if they don’t, they will destabilize a unit that truly cannot afford it following the departure of Haden.
Justin Layne enters the final year of his contract, and offers nothing more than snaps on special teams. He has been a disappointment and is a use-only-in-the-case of emergency player.
James Pierre was a camp darling and made a few play plays in the regular season. Unfortunately, they were sandwiched between several burnings, especially at the hands of Bengals Ja’Marr Chase, and he quickly found his way to the bench. Way too much was expected from Pierre in year #2, and though he gathered experience, he will primarily be a special teamer and provide depth in 2022.
Arthur Maulet is a free agent and will be 29 at the start of next season, bringing into question whether or not the team will re-sign him. Maulet had a decent season for what he was asked to do, getting a shot in the slot, but the team may want to give Tre Norwood a more consistent role, in addition to possibly exploring their options through free agency and the draft.
What happens with the cornerback position is all dependent on the re-signing of Witherspoon. If he is not retained, the team will have to scramble to find a starter opposite Sutton. If he is, they can work on finding a solid #4 corner through the draft or free agency who provides depth can spell the starters. Problem is, we are all too aware of the organization’s failure in terms of drafting cornerbacks, which may push them to go the free agency route instead.