The Steelers are mostly terrible at drafting cornerbacks and even worse at trading for them.
Maybe they could try the offer-sheet route.
Maybe they could step way out of character and seriously stir the pot by tossing an offer sheet at New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler (provided he isn’t traded to New Orleans by the time I write the next paragraph).
Yes, that would essentially be a trade — the Steelers would have to surrender their first-round pick — but let’s be brutally candid here: The gap between the Steelers and the Patriots only widened Thursday when New England signed Stephon Gilmore to a massive free-agent deal. That gave the Patriots two shutdown-caliber corners. The Steelers have none, which is a problem against Tom Brady.
Go ahead and laugh at the idea. I’ll tell you what’s truly laughable: Brady’s 22 touchdowns and zero interceptions against Mike Tomlin-coached teams.
Something dramatic needs to happen for the Steelers to close the gap. Signing a mid-level corner isn’t going to do it. Hoping Senquez Golson heals or Ross Cockrell returns probably won’t get it done either, and please don’t talk to me about more rookies lining up against Brady in the AFC championship game, where you just know he’ll be come January (New England has been to six of those in a row).
Going after Butler would be akin to blitzing Bill Belichick, which is why I don’t have much confidence in it happening. The Steelers don’t attack the Patriots. They sit back in a soft zone, let Brady pick them apart and then ask him for his jersey after the game.
Why wouldn’t you at least consider going after Butler? He is a proven impact player who just turned 27. I’ll take that over the 30th overall pick.
The other consideration is money. You gotta pay the Butler — and even then the Patriots could match any offer. The Boston Herald laid out these parameters: “It would make sense for the Patriots to match anything around $10 million in average annual value, but would they extend themselves to $11 million or $12 million? They might prefer the first-round pick.”
The Steelers would have some tough decisions to make if they paid Butler, but cash can always be moved around (plus, they wouldn’t have to pay a first-round pick). This is doable.
You get what you pay for, and the Steelers pay mostly for offense. Their top five cap hits and eight of 10 for next season are offensive players. That is largely a function of their relative youth on defense, but last I checked, it’s perfectly legal to pay somebody on that side of the ball, too.
So go for it. Be bold. Do something that hasn’t happened in the NFL since 2003, when Washington surrendered its first-round pick to the Jets as part of an offer-sheet deal for Laveranues Coles. Force the Patriots to surrender Butler or pay big money, which they usually are loathe to do.
It was shocking, actually, to see Belichick lavish Gilmore with a $65 million deal, but it shows how much he values the position.
It also shows the Patriots’ astounding financial flexibility, which can be traced largely to one source: Brady’s incredibly cap-friendly contract.
Unlike nearly every other roster in the league this past season, New England’s featured a prominent middle class. That was possible because Brady accounted for less than 10 percent of the team’s total cap space (a $13.8 million hit). His deal helped a Super Bowl champion open the offseason with $63 million in cap space.
Compare that to Atlanta, which devoted $23.7 million of its cap space to Matt Ryan, or to the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger’s $23.9 million hit this past season.
That being said, the Steelers aren’t exactly failing. They have appeared in three Super Bowls and six conference championship games in 17 seasons this century. Only two teams have more wins than their 32 over the past three seasons.
They’re just not the Patriots, Neither is anyone else, mostly because New England has a player who is historically unique in so many ways and a coach with no equal.
Flush with cash, the Patriots have already traded for a tight end (Dwayne Allen) to replace Martellus Bennett, re-signed a stellar defensive lineman (Alan Branch) and reeled in an elite cornerback. They’re getting better every day.
Your move, Steelers.
Joe Starkey: email@example.com and Twitter @joestarkey1. Joe Starkey can be heard on the “Starkey and Mueller” show weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.