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At draft, Steelers might live on edge for 1st time in almost 20 years | TribLIVE.com
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At draft, Steelers might live on edge for 1st time in almost 20 years

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Clemson's Mackensie Alexander (2) and Austin Bryant (91) celebrate a missed field goal in the first quarter by Alabama's Adam Griffith on Jan. 11, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz.

Kevin Colbert’s explanation had validity.

“That’s just how it broke,” the Steelers general manager said about not selecting a cornerback in the first round of the NFL Draft in recent years.

The Steelers, in fact, haven’t drafted a cornerback in the first round since 1997. No team has gone longer without drafting a first-round cornerback. Half the league picked a corner in the first round during the past five years.

Colbert never has used a first-round pick in 16 drafts with the Steelers.

Call it philosophy. Call it low drafting positions. Call it bad luck.

Whatever the case, the Steelers secondary has been void of top-level talent acquired through the draft for some time, but that could change April 28 when the Steelers select 25th.

“We never neglected drafting in the secondary intentionally,” Colbert said. “Ike Taylor was a draft pick. Bryant McFadden was a draft pick. Cortez Allen was a draft pick. Curtis Brown was a draft pick. Some didn’t pan out as good as we thought it would.

“So we haven’t really neglected taking them. I just think some of those guys haven’t been what we hoped for.”

Some of it has been because the draft didn’t break in a way that the Steelers felt comfortable taking a cornerback in the first round.

In 2012, David DeCastro unexpectedly fell in the draft. The same can be said about Bud Dupree last year.

In 2013, there were no first-round caliber cornerbacks available when the Steelers drafted. In 2009 and ’11, the team drafted near the bottom of the first round. In 2010, the Steelers used their pick on future All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey.

In 2014, the Steelers could have drafted TCU cornerback Jason Verrett but took linebacker Ryan Shazier instead.

Colbert said he believes players selected in “Rounds 1, 2 and 3 should be starters at some point — and when they’re not, that’s something that falls on us.”

The Steelers have failed as often as they’ve succeeded.

In the Colbert Era, the Steelers drafted Senquez Golson (2015), Brown (’11), Keenan Lewis (’09), McFadden (’05), Ricardo Colclough (’04) and Hank Poteat (’00) within the first three rounds. Of those, just McFadden and Lewis turned into starting cornerbacks, with the jury still out on Golson.

The Steelers traded McFadden before acquiring him again, and they allowed Lewis to leave via free agency.

Then when they thought they got one right with Cortez Allen in the fourth round and rewarded him with a five-year, $25 million deal the day before the start of the 2014 season, Allen imploded. He was benched and eventually placed on injured reserve in 2014 and ’15 before the Steelers released him Friday.

The Steelers can erase past failures in this year’s draft.

“It’s a strong corner draft,” coach Mike Tomlin said.

As many as six cornerbacks could be taken in the first round: Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey, Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves, Houston’s William Jackson III, Miami’s Artie Burns, Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander and Ohio State’s Eli Apple.

Tomlin and Colbert attended all of their pro days.

“We’re very active in the pro days, on the pro-day circuit,” Tomlin said. “We believe there’s no exception to getting our feet on the ground and interacting with the young men and those who they work with, and getting ourselves a better chance at understanding them and getting to know them.”

Ramsey and Hargreaves will be gone by time the Steelers pick 25th. Jackson also could be gone, with Apple, Burns and Alexander being around in the bottom half of the draft.

Alexander is an interesting prospect who could be around when the Steelers pick.

He didn’t put up many numbers during his redshirt sophomore season at Clemson as he didn’t have a single interception. He had only 11 pass breakups in two seasons.

“In a lot of my situations, I wasn’t challenged very much,” Alexander said. “A lot of quarterbacks and teams stayed away from me, and that was their game plan.”

Jackson was productive at Houston, leading the nation with 23 pass breakups last year and with 40 in his three seasons. At 6-foot-1, Jackson would fill the need of a tall cornerback for the Steelers.

“I think I can match up with any big receiver on the outside,” Jackson said. “I am a press corner, press man.

“I feel that is my strength. My weakness is tackling — stop going for the big hit all the time.”

Mark Kaboly is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @Mark Kaboly_Trib.

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