There is a natural inclination when you hear news of some upcoming event to give some consideration to the many implications that would follow as a result. With reports coming out that the Pittsburgh Steelers will try to trade cornerback Steven Nelson—and if failing to do so, likely release him—it’s gotten fans thinking about the immediate future.
Nelson was originally signed by the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent in 2019 to a three-year, $25.5 million deal. He has lived up to that contract through his first two seasons, even if embittered fans are beginning to change their tunes on even this once agreed-upon truth.
For whatever reason—almost surely down to financials—it doesn’t look like the Steelers are going to get that third year out of him, which means someone else is going to have to step up. The logical presumption is that Cameron Sutton will slide into his place.
But with Mike Hilton also gone, who becomes the number three cornerback? If both Hilton and Nelson are no longer on the roster, then they are only returning four cornerbacks from last season, two with very minimal experience.
There has been attention shifted to James Pierre, a 2020 rookie college free agent draft pick, largely because the Steelers allowed him to play when Joe Haden was unavailable for the postseason. He played in favor of Justin Layne, the team’s 2019 third-round pick.
But we shouldn’t be writing off Layne so quickly, even if he has had two years of development. For one thing, he did develop. The former Spartan got on the field for 117 defensive snaps last season in addition to 261 special teams snaps.
Could he have done better when he was on the field? Certainly. And that’s probably why Pierre played over him in the postseason game. But we can’t assume that the way one season left off is how the next season will pick up, especially when we’re talking about arriving at the regular season.
It’s worth keeping in mind that Layne was literally a wide receiver until he went to college, and he declared for the draft as a true junior. This is a young kid without a lot of time logged as a cornerback, and his second offseason was greatly marred by the pandemic, limiting his growth potential at a time where players like him would be benefiting the most.
The Steelers drafted Layne when they did because he has great physical traits and a lot of talent. None of that has changed. They may not have a great track record of drafting the position, and having skills and attributes doesn’t guarantee success, but I would hope we have learned by now the lesson of writing people off prematurely.
After all, Sutton wasn’t really much far ahead at this point in his career despite having substantially more positional experience. He even lost out on playing time to Coty Sensabaugh.