PITTSBURGH -- Ross Cockrell's restricted-free-agent tender of $1.797 million, which he signed this week, became another value contract for the Pittsburgh Steelers' modest cornerback payroll. Cockrell is a reliable two-year starter who played 1,093 snaps in 2016. He's also one of three Steelers cornerbacks with extensive experience in Keith Butler's defense making less than $3 million per year.
That's prudent budgeting if the Steelers can keep it that way. But the low numbers prompt the question: When will the Steelers be forced to invest in one of the game' most important positions?
The Steelers' current lineup of Cockrell, Artie Burns, William Gay, free-agent acquisition Coty Sensabaugh and oft-injured Senquez Golson add up to a 2017 salary cap hit of around $9.22 million. Every other team in the AFC North doubles that total -- with its top-three lineup.
Whether the conservative approach burns Pittsburgh eventually depends on perspective -- and faith in the Steelers' draft plans. The $9.22 million figure is aided by a rookie wage scale that keeps Burns, a first-round hit, at a $2.18 million cap hit.
Burns' play is trending upward. Hit on another cornerback in the first three rounds of the 2017 draft and the Steelers would have at least two high-pedigree options at reasonable cost.
It's also worth noting the Steelers flirted with several high-profile cornerbacks during the March free-agency swing, including Kirkpatrick, whose lanky skill set would have fit in well. In the end, they simply weren't willing to spend like the three teams above, whose top corners Haden, Smith and Kirkpatrick occupy more than $36 million in cap space next season.
Though eschewing the top dollar may prove wise, paying a cornerback could have freed the Steelers from targeting cornerbacks for the third straight draft. Perhaps you can never have enough, and the team wanted supplemental help regardless of Sensabaugh's new role.
Cost-effective depth seems to prevail here. Adding one more cover corner next week gives them, on paper, at least five capable options, not including Golson, who hasn't played an NFL down. His emergence would be a bonus.
Then maybe you've got something for a 2017 schedule that includes several of the league's top passers.
Until next year, when Cockrell's a free agent and the Steelers might need corner help once again.