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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Looking at the corners

Priorities are what often drive a draft more than anything else. As much as teams like to pay lip service to the old "best player available" mantra, let’s be honest about something for a second: Few teams, if any, actually work their draft in that matter.

We're going to take a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers, position by position, over the next month as we try to get a better handle on what directions the team will go on April 28 and 29.

Today: The cornerbacks.

The Steelers have arguably spent more money and high draft picks on the cornerback position than any other in recent years. Yet the position is still considered a weakness as it heads into the 2007 NFL draft.

From 2003 through 2005, the team spent premium picks on Ike Taylor, Ricardo Colclough and Bryant McFadden. Yet somehow, none has been able to permanently displace veteran Deshea Townsend in the starting lineup.

At 31, Townsend is certainly starting to slow down. But the nine-year veteran remains the team's most reliable corner – even though his lack of ideal size (5-10, 190 pounds) often gets him in trouble against larger receivers.

But until the team's other corners can come close to Townsend's consistency level, he’ll likely stay in the starting lineup.

The Steelers gave Taylor a five-year, $22-million contract last season and he responded by landing himself in Bill Cowher's doghouse.

At 6-1, 191-pounds, Taylor has excellent size to go along with his blazing speed. His problem seems to be a lack of focus. At times, Taylor seems more intent on being a celebrity rather than perfecting his craft. Instead of worrying about off-the-field stuff, Taylor should concentrate more on his play on the field. He, and the team, would be better off for it.

Maybe his benching last season will serve as a wake-up call for the talented Taylor. He's too good a corner to be sitting the bench for this team.

McFadden took advantage of Taylor's benching to jump into the starting lineup on a full-time basis in just his second season. Like Taylor, McFadden has excellent size (6-0, 190), though he lacks Taylor’s top-end speed.

McFadden makes up for that with his aggressiveness and tackling ability and is a player who is only going to get better.

Even more than a wildcard for the Steelers this season is Colclough. Though he failed miserably as a punt return man last season, Colclough was making some strides as a cover man before a mysterious neck injury landed him on injured reserve.

The 5-11, 195-pound Colclough has coverage skills. He's a player who always seems to be in position, he has just failed to make the big plays early in his career. If he can make that jump and improve his ball skills, he could surprise in 2007.

Rookie Anthony Madison made the team as an undrafted rookie last season and showed some potential. But his overall lack of size (5-9, 180) is working against him as being anything more than an end of the bench player.

Veteran Chidi Iwuoma was released at the end of training camp last season and bounced around the league to New England and St. Louis before landing back with the Steelers by season's end. But Iwuoma, whom the team re-signed this offseason, is nothing more than a special teams gunner – though that is an important job that he excels at.

Given that the Steelers still see Cincinnati and its potent passing game as its main long-term threat in the AFC North, cornerback is an important position on this team in the grand scheme of things. Poor cornerback play against the likes of Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson is going to equal a lot of headaches.

And with Townsend near the end of the line and Colclough and Taylor somewhat question marks - though the team has a lot at stake financially with Taylor - cornerback could be seen as a need position early in this year's draft, especially if that is where the value is.

Even if the Steelers don't select a cornerback in the first couple of rounds, look for them to address the position at some point in the draft.

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