The Pittsburgh Steelers have a few noted philosophies when it comes to the NFL draft. They do not draft cornerbacks early and the first round players they do take are high upside athletes, who may be raw, but have the confidence that they can develop into better players than their draft slot. Since 2006 the Steelers have drafted 11 cornerbacks with one going in the first round and one more in round two. Since Jarvis Jones, the team has drafted pure athletes from Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Artie Burns, T.J. Watt, and Terrell Edmunds, each one as impressive as the next.
However, due to recent history and Mike Tomlins comments about Artie Burns this offseason, it may be time to buck some of these trends to find a pure cornerback more than a pure athlete, and to draft him high, despite his limited athleticism. Rather than drafting the upside of Burns only to find out he is not going to develop, the Steelers should take a chance on a developed cornerback ready to see the NFL field despite non-elite measurables. If they want to do that in round one, they should look no further than Byron Murphy.
Murphy and Burns are not going to get much different at cornerback. Burns possesses elite size, length and speed to hang with bigger receivers on the outside. Of course, his tape was extremely raw, mostly filled with the physical attributes. Byron Murphy is a bit on the short side, does not have great length and does not even possess great deep speed.
This not the profile of a first round pick by the Steelers, especially at cornerback. However, it is worth noting that cornerbacks with similar measurables can find success in the NFL. Mike Hughes was a round one pick just last year with similar height, length, and athleticism, and Casey Heyward is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL with similar length.
Mark Kaboly of The Athletic noted that Kevin Colbert is aware of their struggles at cornerback, and with the miss on Artie Burns, have opened their thinking to a new style of drafting.
“We have to try maybe to find that balance and maybe be more open to the concept that the game is constantly changing and if you want playmakers in the back end, then find someone who has done it,” Colbert said.
If the Steelers are going to be more open to finding playmakers at cornerback regardless of how athletic and when they find them, the obvious answer for them is to draft Byron Murphy. While Artie Burns had six interceptions in college, it came because he was peppered with targets due to his struggles. NFL.com notes that Murphy has the best ball production per target and the analytics match up the claim. He was not targeted often because when he was, bad things followed.
With Byron Murphy, the Steelers would be adding a very ball-aware player. In 20 college games, Murphy has six interceptions, seven tackles for loss and 20 pass breakups. Note the play below. What is so impressive is his physical nature despite being undersized.
He fights with the receiver at the top of the route, makes the route his, and then dominates the dog fight for the football. While he is undersized, the dog in his play brings out a bigger cornerback.
The top tweet is impressive as it shows his ability to recognize the route, plant his feet and change directions, and crash down on the pass right as it is caught. However, the bottom tweet is the perfect display of ball skills and awareness. Looks like his arm length was not an issue here, as his instincts put him in the right spot to knock the ball away near the end zone.
Byron Murphy vs Auburn pic.twitter.com/GCxTWLVEKi
— rph (@parkerhurleyNFL) March 3, 2019
Understanding and physicality
The understanding and physicality were on full display in the two plays highlighted and can be exemplified in the two plays below. In the bottom tweet, Murphy recognizes a screen pre-snap and ends the play before it ever starts. This type of play wrecking awareness was scattered throughout his 2018 season.
The top tweet will make every Steelers fan hope for their team to bring in Murphy. Watch how he is able to recognize the route in zone coverage, make a break on the football and lay a hit that separates the ball from the receiver in front of the first down sticks.
Byron Murphy screen pic.twitter.com/orLgtWjO7j
— rph (@parkerhurleyNFL) March 3, 2019
Murphy is best in zone coverage when working with his eyes on the quarterback. It helps relieve his deep speed and length questions as he keeps things in front of him and does not press much at the line of scrimmage. When you are a smart and talented player such as Murphy, sometimes you do not have to be versatile if you dominate as a zone cornerback. Below, he reads the play, leaves his man and forces the pass to go too far out of bounds before making a play. You do not want to throw to his side of the field.
While many Steelers fans will see a zone cornerback and think he is a perfect fit, it would be a surprise to many to learn they ran more man than most NFL teams last season. Is this going to fit for Murphy?
His ball awareness and instincts can make it happen. Below we see him lined up in man and following a receiver over the middle of the field. He breaks on the ball and knocks it away on a play that wound up winning Washington the Pac-12.
Of course, man is where Murphy will see the issues with his size and speed come. Murphy did allow a few receptions deep down the field and did get beat off of the line a few times when asked to press. Still, while he did not do it much, he can slide inside to take on snaps in the slot in man coverage.
In the play below he follows his man over the middle. He takes away the inside and uses his physicality near the line of scrimmage to make a play on the ball.
While Mike Hilton is the starter in the slot, it is worth noting that Hilton is a free agent next year and will not move away from the slot. Mike Tomlin noted versatility and being able to move in and out of the slot as a key reason to signing Steven Nelson. With different types of receivers moving in and out of the slot now, the Steelers are looking for cornerbacks who can move in and out of the slot, and Murphy has that ability.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been unable to get cornerback right. However, they have admitted to their mistakes and have made changes in their philosophy before. Now, it is time for them to show that they are true to their words. The team flew Murphy to Pittsburg for a meeting, so they clearly have interest despite him not checking all of their old boxes.
Drafting Byron Murphy would not be a typical Steelers move based on recent draft history. However, that may be exactly why he is the cornerback they need to take in round one.