The 2020 NFL Draft is drawing near, which seems to be a fitting time to take a look back at the rookie seasons of the Pittsburgh Steelers class from the 2019 NFL Draft. People start talking about the quality of a draft class before said class is even completed, of course, but now we have a year of data to work from.
Over the course of the next several days, I will be providing an overview of the team’s rookies, as well as an evaluation of each rookie that the Steelers drafted, while also noting any undrafted free agents that were able to stick around. This will not include the likes of Robert Spillane and Tevin Jones because they were first-year players, not rookies.
The Steelers went into the 2018 NFL Draft with 10 selections, including two in the third round and three in the sixth, but ended up trading their second-round pick to move up in the first round. They received additional third- and fifth-round picks for trading Antonio Brown, a sixth for Marcus Gilbert, and the other sixth was part of the Ryan Switzer trade the year before.
Continuing a recent trend, the class has proven to be top-heavy in terms of early results, though there are still opportunities for those selected by them in the later rounds of the draft to develop into bigger contributors as well.
Player: Justin Layne
Draft Status: Third Round (83rd overall)
Starts: 0 (10 games)
It was a redshirt season for the true junior out of Michigan State, but that was no surprise. Prior to the Steelers using their natural third-round draft choice on the Spartan, Pittsburgh had already gone out and acquired Steven Nelson in free agency, and they otherwise already had competent depth at cornerback.
Joining Joe Haden, Nelson and Mike Hilton took up the lion’s share of cornerback snaps for the team in 2019, with whatever was remaining being mopped up by Cameron Sutton and Artie Burns, the latter of whom is a former starter who was given the chance to start when Nelson missed one game due to injury.
But with Burns leaving in free agency, Layne steps up a rung. He will have the opportunity to compete, with Sutton, possibly even with Hilton, for playing time. While he may be limited to the outside, the Steelers would entertain the option of moving Nelson inside, where he played for most of his first three seasons, if that gives them the best starting three. The team talked about the possibility of his playing inside after they signed him.
While the long-term hope for Layne is naturally that he will earn playing time and become a defensive contributor, for the time being, his priority is being a positive presence on special teams, which will be needed this year more than most with three significant losses in that phase of the game. By season’s end, he was dressing over Burns because of the strides he made in that department.