Scouting and evaluating football players is not and can never be an exact science. You can compile all the statistics and vital measurables you want, but ultimately they will merely predict rather than guarantee whether or not a player is going to be able to be a success at the highest level of the profession.
One of the best tools that evaluators try to use to gauge how good a player might be is to isolate how they perform against competition that they also believe to be of a high level and use that as a touchstone for their analysis of what that player is capable of doing. If they can do well against a player that you also rate highly, then, as the logic goes, they should be more likely to have success at the next level.
That was part of the evaluation that the Pittsburgh Steelers had on Michigan State cornerback Justin Layne, who played wide receiver N’Keal Harry last season. Pro Football Focus, who had the Arizona State wide receiver ranked as their 61st prospect, even mocked Harry to the Steelers. Layne was ranked 39th overall on their draft board.
“I saw him play that game. And that’s the one thing I thought, that receiver’s very good”, defensive backs coach Teryl Austin said about Layne going up against Harry last season when Michigan State played against Arizona State. While he did give up a big play, he also defended a touchdown against Harry in that game. The New England Patriots drafted Harry at the end of the first round, by the way.
“He competed very well. He lost a couple, but that’s going to happen when you’re playing a guy that’s that type of quality”, he went on. “But I was very pleased with his performance that game. He didn’t back down. He didn’t give an inch. And he just kept coming at it play after play”.
According to PFF, Layne allowed 42 receptions last season on 81 targets for 364 yards with three touchdowns, recording one interception with 14 forced incompletions. He allowed just 8.7 yards per reception, .73 yards per coverage snap, and a passer rating of 71.2.
Layne is still somewhat inexperienced, having been moved from wide receiver to cornerback during the middle of his true freshman season, though he says he was a two-way player before college, so defense wasn’t entirely new to him. the 21-year-old (he will play the entire regular season at that age) has a lot of potential for growth.
And a lot of opportunities to go up against talented wide receivers in the future. If he can fill out his frame (listed at 192 pounds at 6’2” and work on some of his techniques and spatial awareness, the Steelers might have something in him. They saw that potential in his tape against Harry, among the rest of his season.