We’ll have to wait quite a while until we know if the Pittsburgh Steelers made a solid selection when they picked former Michigan State cornerback Justin Layne in the third-round of the 2019 NFL Draft. However, the selection of Layne in the third-round by the Steelers appears to be one of the early favorites of several of the major media draftniks when it comes to overall value and how he can potentially make an impact on defense during his rookie season.
On Monday, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. weighed in with his thoughts on 15 rookies selected in Rounds 1-7 of this year’s draft that he believes will make an immediate impact for their respective teams and Layne was listed as one of them.
I was surprised Layne lasted this far into the draft. I put him at No. 29 in my final mock draft, and I thought he’d go in the top 40. I love this fit in Pittsburgh, where the team brought in free agent Steven Nelson, and former first-rounder Artie Burns took a step back last season. The Steelers intercepted only eight passes in 2018, and Layne, a converted wide receiver, had 19 pass breakups over the past two seasons. Every team needs cornerback depth in this pass-happy era of the NFL.
While Kiper expected Layne to be drafted earlier than where he was, the Michigan State cornerback also said during his conference call with the media immediately after he was selected that he thought he would go earlier than 83rd overall.
“I expected to go in the second round but it’s all good,” Layne said. “They are going to feel me, it’s all good.”
Layne’s third-round selection came 53 picks after the first cornerback was picked this year and that happened when Georgia’s Deandre Baker was chosen 30th overall by the New York Giants. After just one cornerback was selected in this year’s first-round, seven more were picked in the second-round and by the time Layne was picked by the Steelers in the third-round, a total of nine total cornerbacks had already been drafted.
With the Steelers signing veteran cornerback Steven Nelson this offseason, it’s hard to envision Layne making much of an impact on defense during his rookie season barring injuries as the wide receiver-turned-cornerback likely needs to sit and watch and potentially help out some on special teams in 2019. Should, however, Layne somehow manage to see the field some on defense during his rookie season, such playing time is likely to come on the outside and not in the slot.
“Right now, I think I see him more as an outside guy to start with,” Steelers defensive back coach Teryl Austin said during his Layne post-selection press conference. “I think that in terms of learning and getting him ready, that’ll be something that I’ll do. And then we’ll see what type of mental aptitude he has to handle everything that we do before we start talking about moving him inside.”
Judging by what Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said a few days after the draft during an interview on 105.9 The X, Layne still likely has quite a bit to learn about playing the conerback position before he’s allowed to contribute any on defense in Pittsburgh.
“But Justin, he’s still learning how to play,” Colbert said. “He was a receiver his first year, he converted over to corner, did some nice things for Michigan State. Now, he actually still played some receiver in some packages for them, just albeit running a few routes, he was a used by them as a deep threat. So, his ball skills are good, his intensity’s good, he understands what he’s doing, he’s just still learning how to play defense. So, we probably haven’t seen the best of him. We hope there’s more than we have seen, but what we’ve seen was good enough to take them where we did.”
The Steelers, as most already know, haven’t done a great job of drafting and developing cornerbacks as a whole since Colbert arrived in Pittsburgh in 2000. In fact, current Steelers cornerback Artie Burns, the team’s first-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, is on the verge of potentially not even playing out his rookie contract after being benched most of 2018 season after a dismal showing in the team’s first six games. Colbert believes that Burns is attempting to overcome a confidence issue this offseason and one would think that having him close to washing out completely that Layne won’t be rushed along unless injuries dictate otherwise.