When Pittsburgh Steelers secondary coach Grady Brown broke down his candidates to be the team’s starting slot cornerback this season during the team’s minicamp last month, there was a somewhat suprirrisng name on the list.
In the competition to replace 2022 regular Art Maulet, who was released earlier this offseason, the Steelers have one obvious candidate in Chandon Sullivan, who was brought in as a free agent during the draft after playing that role for the Minnesota Vikings, inboard of Patrick Peterson last year.
Elijah Riley, who played mostly safety for the Steelers last season, also played 65 snaps in the slot and he makes sense as a do-it-all defensive back that could round out the 53-man roster.
But the third option that Brown listed, and in his words, of equal stature to the other, probably was not a household name. That’s fourth-year cornerback Duke Dawson.
“I’m excited to watch the Nickels compete,” Brown said. “All three of them are viable candidates. In no particular order, you have Eli, Sully and then you have Duke, just as baseline a place to start.”
Dawson had a very quiet start to his Steelers career. The club brought him in mid-season last year after he had been waived from the Carolina Panthers’ injured reserve. He spent the rest of the season on the practice squad and was never activated for a game.
That’s not a path that leads a lot of players to a major role the following season, but Dawson has some pedigree that suggests more talent than his humble Steelers beginnings might.
A All-SEC corner at Florida and second-round draft pick in 2018, the reason that Dawson was available to the Steelers for a mid-season practice squad addition has been more about his availability than his ability.
He missed all of 2018 with a hamstring injury, parts of 2020 and 2021 after an ACL tear and then suffered a groin injury with the Panthers in 2022 before joining the Steelers.
The Steelers use their slot corners like miniature linebackers, and players like Maulet and Mike Hilton had the job as much for their role as run-stoppers and pass-rushers as they did for their coverage.
“You’ve got to be able to tackle and cover,” Dawson said. “Me, I feel like I can do both. But I just continue to work every day on both of those things and try to add more tools to my toolbelt.”
Dawson will have to make an impact in those areas at training camp if he’s going to earn a role, but he’s starting with an even chance, according to Brown.
33 • Duke Dawson, fourth-year cornerback, Florida
5-foot-10, 198 pounds, 27 years old
Acquired: The Steelers signed Dawson to their practice squad on Oct. 12, 2022 and re-signed him to a reserve/future contract for the 2023 season in January.
Last season: Dawson signed with the Carolina Panthers last July, but suffered a groin injury in the preseason and placed on injured reserve on Aug. 22. Three days later, Carolina released him from the IR.
When healthy, the Steelers signed Dawson to their practice squad, where he remained throughout the season without appearing in a game.
Career: A second-round pick by the New England Patriots out of Florida in the 2018 NFL Draft, Dawson never played a down for the Pats. He was placed on injured reserve on Sept. 6 of his rookie year with a hamstring injury, was activated on Nov. 13, but was not dressed for a game. He won a Super Bowl LIII ring with the Pats, despite not playing.
In 2019, New England traded Dawson and seventh-round draft pick to the Denver Broncos for a sixth-round pick. He played in 14 games for the Broncos and made three starts, racking up 19 tackles, two passes defended and a fumble recovery in his best statistical season.
The following year, he played in 12 games and made one start before tearing his ACL in Week 14, ending his season. He started the 2021 season on the PUP list because of his injury, was activated on Nov. 8, waived, placed on the practice squad, and did not appear in a game.
College: A four-star prospect out of Dixie County High School in Cross City, Florida, Dawson chose the Gators over offers from Alabama, Florida State and Wisconsin.
Dawson played in 11 games as a true freshman, mostly at safety, behind current Steelers safety Keanu Neal. When the Florida program went through the transition from Will Muschamp to Jim McElwain in the 2014-15 offseason, Dawson stuck with the team.
In 2015, he was once again slotted behind Neal, and played in 14 games, making 10 tackles.
As a junior in 2016, Dawson moved from safety to slot corner, where he was the primary Nickel option for the Gators all season. He played in 12 games and started seven, but missed the SEC Championship Game due to injury.
He recorded 24 tackles, 3.5 for a loss, one interception which he returned for a touchdown, and defended a team-high eight passes.
There was speculation that Dawson could have left for the NFL after his junior season, but he once again returned to the Gators.
In 2017, he played and started 11 games and set career highs with 34 tackles, four interceptions and 13 passes defended. He was named an All-SEC selection and an honorable mention All-America.
Salary cap and future: Dawson has a one-year deal with the Steelers and will earn $1.08 million, with a $940,000 cap hit, if he makes the team. He does not have a signing bonus. Dawson will be an unrestricted free agent after the season.
The rest of the 90: