2021 Pre-Draft Movements — Cornerback

We started this series with a little over two weeks remaining to the draft, knowing that nearly all of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ pertinent personnel decisions will have already been made by then. Over the course of the series, we will be reviewing the team’s roster turnover position by position in an effort to help us project what their plans will be for the 2021 NFL Draft.

The Steelers had 10 starters or primary players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents this offseason and have re-signed only five of them, those being JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cameron Sutton, Zach Banner, Tyson Alualu, and Jordan Berry. They re-signed a number exclusive rights or restricted free agents, chiefly Robert Spillane and J.C. Hassenauer, while signing Ray-Ray McCloud to a non-tender deal.

The deals of Ben RoethlisbergerCameron Heyward, Derek Watt, and Eric Ebron were restructured, while those of Steven Nelson and Vince Williams were terminated, the latter being re-signed. Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald retired.

Of note, the Steelers have added five players as unrestricted or street agents from outside of the organization, including three offensive linemen in Joe Haeg, Rashaad Coward, and former Steeler B.J. Finney. The group also includes linebacker Miles Killebrew and running back Kalen Ballage.

Position: Cornerback

Total Positional Figure: 6

Offseason Additions: 1

Offseason Deletions: 2

Players Retained:

Joe Haden: Entering his fifth season with the Steelers, Haden, now 32, continues his battle with Father Time. So far, he’s been winning, but the old man catches up fast when he picks up the pace.

Cameron Sutton: Moving up from dime defender to starter, Sutton is a young player who has bided his time for the opportunity now in front of him. Now it’s up to him to show he’s up to the task, perhaps while playing both outside and inside.

Justin Layne: Layne was a third-round pick in 2019, coming into the league with good pedigree. It’s now time for his development to hasten. If he can’t be a steady contributor by year three, there may not be much hope for him, and now they need him.

James Pierre: Pierre, an undrafted free agent last year, will compete with Layne, and perhaps others, for the number three cornerback position this offseason. Both profile more as boundary corners, which would push Sutton into the slot in sub-packages.

Trevor Williams: Williams signed on to the practice squad in January. But he is a veteran with dozens of starts both outside and inside under his belt. Injuries have bogged him down in recent years.

Players Added:

Stephen Denmark: Denmark, now 25 years old, is still looking for his first bit of playing time. He has the physical attributes at 6’2” and 217 pounds. A former undrafted free agent, Pittsburgh signed him to a futures deal in January.

Players Deleted:

Steven Nelson: Though a move that some have struggled to understand, the Steelers released Steven Nelson as a salary cap casualty, clearing about $7.5 million after displacement. He has been an outside starter for the past two years since signing as an unrestricted free agent in 2019.

Mike Hilton: One of the top slot defenders in the NFL, Hilton earned one of the top corresponding contracts as an unrestricted free agent. He stayed in the division by signing with the rival Bengals.

Notes and Draft Outlook:

Given that they only have two proven players, one of whom is not proven in the role he’s currently projected to perform this year, it stands to reason that cornerback is one of the Steelers’ biggest areas of need this offseason. The position will certainly be on the board as early as the first round of the draft. That’s even if they have similarly significant needs elsewhere, like running back and offensive line.

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