The Pittsburgh Steelers have made their choice. JuJu Smith-Schuster over Steven Nelson. So the Steelers are getting back their receiver but it comes at the expense of a starting corner. And leaves some serious questions about the state of the Steelers’ corners. Mike Hilton is gone. Joe Haden is declining. And Nelson is out the door any day now.
Cam Sutton, at least, is coming back. And he can play on the outside or in the slot. But after all these moves, there’s one name under the bright lights. James Pierre.
Entering his sophomore season in 2021, Pittsburgh picked Pierre up as a UDFA out of Florida Atlantic last April. He fits the mold of the type of corner the Steelers have shifted towards. Listed at 6’2, 185 pounds, and I imagine he’s added a little bit of weight since coming into the league.
Pierre was the lone UDFA to make the 53 out of training camp. No small feat for not having an offseason or preseason to prove yourself to coaches. He got a hat for all 16 games, serving as a starting gunner and special teamer, and playing relatively well there, save for the expected rookie bumps in the road. He logged a handful of snaps in blowout wins over Cincinnati and Jacksonville, showing size and physicality to blow up this WR screen against the Jags.
Blowout wins over the Bengals and Jaguars providing chance for reserve players/special teamers like rookie CB James Pierre to log time on defense. Physical close and stick on this screen late in yesterday's game. #Steelers pic.twitter.com/AgFv4k5fbM
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) November 23, 2020
He logged a season-high 18 defensive snaps in the Week 17 finale against the Browns with the Steelers resting starters and Joe Haden missing due to COVID. He subbed in for dime packages in the Wild Card loss to the Browns. Baker Mayfield targeted him once on 3rd and 10 and Pierre did a great job at the catch point to break the pass up.
Pierre has seemed to surpass Justin Layne, who struggled in his limited reps last year. Layne was billed as a raw corner coming out of Michigan State, making the switch from wide receiver mid-way through his college career, but two years in, his NFL future is dimming.
It’s unclear exactly how the Steelers will replace Nelson moving forward. Pittsburgh is obviously much more likely to add a cornerback higher in the draft now. Sutton could play RCB in the team’s base 3-4 and then kick inside to nickel in sub-packages. If it’s the latter, the next man up on the outside could be Pierre. And if he plays as well as the Steelers hope, losing Nelson won’t hurt nearly as bad. And keeping Smith-Schuster will look like a great move.