One of the things that the Pittsburgh Steelers talked about leading up to the 2019 NFL Draft was the possibility of shifting their focus in their evaluations of the cornerback position, focusing less on players who are stout defenders against the run—less of necessity in man coverage—and more on those who know how to take the ball away.
Then they drafted Justin Layne in the third round, how, despite previously having been a wide receiver, only intercepted three passes during his three-year college career, one each season. He did record a lot of passes defensed, particularly in his final season, but three interceptions is not the resume of a ballhawk.
In spite of that, he and his college coaches came to his defense after the draft in reference to his ability to record interceptions. His position coach at Michigan State said that “there’s no doubt that the ball skills are there and he can make plays, and he definitely had some of the better hands on the team. A lot of times, they didn’t throw his way, so all that plays a factor in getting a bunch of interceptions and all that type of stuff, too”.
Defensive assistant Teryl Austin said after they drafted him that he is “comfortable with his ball skills after watching him play and talking to people and being at his workout. And I’m comfortable with where he is and it’s just a matter of turning that into production at this level”.
So perhaps it’s a positive sign that he has already gotten a couple of interceptions for himself—though not yet from Ben Roethlisberger, he said—during the first two weeks of OTA practices. As we already know, practice picks don’t necessarily translate to getting them in meaningful snaps, but it’s better to record them than not.
“I had a couple of picks”, he told reporters following one recent OTA session, from the team’s website. “I made a couple of plays, got my hands on the ball a couple of times. I’m just trying to keep getting better, keep making plays”.
What sort of opportunities he will have to make plays once the regular season rolls around remains to be seen. Before drafting him, the Steelers invested heavily in Steven Nelson in free agency to be a starter, along side Joe Haden, who may well get an extension this summer. In the slot is Mike Hilton, who is not his direct competition since he only plays inside, and as of now, Layne said that he has only worked outside. I wouldn’t expect that to change much, either.