It may not have been a big moment to some, but Pittsburgh Steelers rookie cornerback Justin Layne finishing the last six weeks of the season as an active player was significant, dressing over Artie Burns. While he did not play on defense, he carved out a role for himself on special teams, and the coaching staff frequently talks about how the skills that allow a player to excel there translate to success on offense or defense.
But, as it turns out, it wasn’t really a big deal to Layne, either. In fact, he told Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “it didn’t really mean anything to me”. Not because he doesn’t care, but because “personally, that’s expected”.
Layne, a cornerback out of Michigan State, was drafted in the third round by the Steelers as a true junior, though he only moved over to the cornerback position from wide receiver once he got to college, so there is an understanding that he is very much in development.
Despite the fact that they drafted a cornerback on day two, the Steelers never needed him, not after going out and getting Steven Nelson in free agency, who proved to be a tremendous addition to the secondary, pairing with Joe Haden, who had five interceptions and a fumble recovery. Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton provided all the depth that was needed, though Burns did start the one game Nelson missed.
The bottom line, though, is that Layne didn’t come here to play special teams. He knows his future is on defense, and that’s where he wants to be. Where he fits in, and when, who’s to say? What we do know is that all four players ahead of him figure to be back on the field in 2020. Three are under contract, and Hilton is a restricted free agent whom they value quite a bit.
“I know what type of player I am”, he said regarding his future, and the lack of clarity about a path toward playing time. “But it’s just how the eggs laid. Only so much you can control — but I know I am definitely good enough to get a helmet every week. It’s just learning and trying to figure out where I fit in at”.
Players are expected to make a big jump from year one to year two, and that’s what Layne is setting out to do this offseason. Sutton’s big jump actually came from year two to year three, and he came into the league significantly more polished and experience, though, so you never know how these things might go.