Though partially out of his control, Justin Layne hasn’t had the easiest transition to the NFL. He declared early as a raw receiver-turned-corner out of Michigan State, drafted by the Steelers in the third round, and spent much of his rookie year on the bench. In fact, he didn’t see a single defensive snap in 2019, playing only on special teams, replacing Artie Burns as a gunner the final six weeks of the season. He officially finished with three tackles.
Year Two is the time when the team expects second-year players to take what they learned as rookies and make a jump. But this offseason isn’t making things easy. No OTAs, no minicamp, a very different looking training camp, and no preseason. All rookies are behind the eight ball and all second-year players are behind the curve.
Speaking with reporters on a recent Zoom call, Butler made it clear how tough 2020 is going to be for someone in Layne’s shoes.
“Well, it makes it tough,” he said. “It makes it tough for anybody in their second year. Your first year, you’re trying to get a feel for things. You’re trying to contribute on special teams. You’re trying to make yourself noticeable where you can maybe get in on some of the sub-package nickel and dime and stuff like that. Of course, if you’re not here, it’s hard to make a case for yourself. That’s going to be hard for him.”
Rookies like Devin Bush who logged significant snaps will naturally grow and learn from that experience. For guys like Layne, who spent most of the year on the sidelines, that growth isn’t as accelerated. Now, he begins training camp on the COVID-19 list, where he’ll spend at least a few more days, an ominous start to year two. Butler ended his thoughts on Layne with a focus on his health.
“My thing is that I just hope he gets well. He gets well, comes back and see how much he retained from last year and see where he’s going to fit on our defense.”
Ideally for Pittsburgh, they don’t learn much about Layne in year two either. Right now, there’s no path to playing time. The Steelers have two excellent, established outside cornerbacks in Joe Haden and Steven Nelson. Layne might not even be the next-man-up, potentially behind Cam Sutton. The good news for Layne is he should be active immediately this season, instead of partway through like his rookie year, and play a full compliment of special teams snaps right away.