Would you like to see the Pittsburgh Steelers solve their cornerback problems? Pro Football Focus believes they may now have the piece needed to do that in third-round pick Justin Layne out of Michigan State. Originally recruited to play there as a wide receiver, Layne converted to cornerback by the end of his freshman season, even starting games, and he grew in each of this three seasons there.
Daniel Rymer wrote about this topic recently for the outlet, noting that the team has only had four seasons by cornerback during their period of grading (from 2006) in which they graded out at 80.0 or better. Two of those seasons came in 2008, by William Gay and Bryant McFadden, the year they won the Super Bowl most recently.
Can Layne be the next cornerback to join that group? Rymer cites some pretty interesting numbers to back up his case. Citing his plus size and speed to cover a variety of different targets, he noted that the rookie did one thing in particular very well that is essential in playing outside cornerback in the NFL: limiting big plays.
On 49 targets over his last two seasons on passes that were thrown 10 or more yards down the field, Layne only allowed 11 receptions for 259 yards. It reads that he forced an incompletion on over 30 percent of those targets, which was the sixth-best among draft-eligible cornerbacks.
The numbers go on. He had one of the best grades in college football over his career when lined up outside, which was the vast majority of the time. He forced an incompletion over 20 percent of the time (11th-best), allowed a passer rating of just 66.8 (12th-best), and a catch rate of just over 50 percent (19th).
All of those are impressive numbers, surely, and it would be great if he could translate them into the NFL, while at the same time finding a way to take more of those passes away, as he only had three interceptions during his college career, never more than one in a single season.
Yet another note about Layne is that he recorded 15 defensive stops in coverage, which was tied for the fifth-most, and he had the second-most total tackles in coverage, a reflection of his willingness to run to the ball under all circumstances as well as his ability to tackle.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we should expect to see him as an immediate contributor. The Steelers already have Joe Haden as their top cornerback, while they brought in Steven Nelson, and Mike Hilton is a quality option in the slot.
But they didn’t draft him for nothing, so if he shows well, there could certainly be opportunities to play. He could have a dime role early on the way Artie Burns did. They’ve also paired taller cornerbacks like Justin Gilbert on athletic tight ends before.