The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t often find themselves in a very comfortable position with their depth chart in the secondary. The past two years have seen them have a bounty that they haven’t had in some time. But they have lost several key players this offseason, particularly at cornerback.
With starters Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton now gone, it’s up to Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton — and whoever else can manage it — to pick up the slack. College free agent rookie James Pierre finished the 2020 season as the proverbial ‘next man up,’ but will he pick up where he left off? Head coach Mike Tomlin wasn’t making any promises in the team’s pre-draft press conference earlier today.
“As the season wore on, we just got more comfortable with what we were seeing from Pierre,” he said, in explaining why he began seeing defensive snaps late last season, even over Justin Layne. “Now, is it a rise in his level of play? Is it a decline in Layne’s level of play? I really can’t speak to that. There was a feeling that he was moving in the right direction, and that’s why we made the decisions that we made.”
“In terms of what that means for 2021, we will see,” he added. “How 2020 ended does not define how 2021’s gonna work out, or even begin for that matter. They’re both capable young players. We had other capable young players. We intend to potentially add to that. So we’ll see where the roads lead us.”
Layne, a 2019 third-round draft pick, logged more than 100 snaps on defense last season as an injury fill-in dime defender when one of their top four cornerbacks missed time. But most notably, it was Pierre who came in for that role in the postseason, while Haden was on the Reserve/COVID-19 List.
It wasn’t nearly as prominent a role in 2020, but given that the team is down two of their top three cornerbacks from a year ago, that’s a major jump from where we now stand, potentially moving into the starting lineup.
Aside from the four cornerbacks already named, the only others currently with the team are Trevor Williams, a veteran with dozens of games logged as a starter though now several years ago, and Stephen Denmark, a first-year former college free agent.
Williams was first signed to the practice squad in January last season — that is, just months ago — after spending time with the Jaguars and the Eagles in 2020. While he has prior starting experience, he has not played much in recent years, and has dealt with injury.
While the Steelers do not have great success drafting the position under Tomlin, one has to assume that cornerback is very high on their internal list of needs. We can’t discount the possibility of them drafting one even in the first round. Particularly in a year in which it’s anticipated that the top 10 and beyond will be filled with offensive players.