The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: James Pierre will be the Steelers’ fifth defensive back this season.
Explanation: Note that I chose my wording carefully year, and did not say third cornerback. The question is whether or not James Pierre will be the team’s nickel defender this year, regardless of where he plays on the field, or if it might be somebody else — maybe a safety. As a college free agent rookie last year, he did see some defensive playing time, including in the postseason.
Based on where last season finished, with Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton now gone, Pierre is the next in line to get on the field. That might mean that Cameron Sutton kicks inside for 65 percent of the time with Pierre on the outside, but there are teams who move a starting cornerback inside every year.
The Steelers like Pierre a fair bit, it seems, and have brought him up on a number of occasions this offseason, speaking of him in the same terms they would any second-year draft pick. He possesses coveted size for the position at 6’2”, even if he can fill out his frame.
One thing I think that we saw from him last year is that he doesn’t play afraid. The moment isn’t too big for him, as Mike Tomlin would say. And it’s especially notable that his most extensive playing time even came in the postseason. He had one critical play to make, and he made it.
We have a tendency to be overly confident in the repeatability of success from a small sample size when it comes to analyzing sports. That tends especially to be the case when concerning players going from a first season to a second — or even a preseason showing.
There are entire graveyards filled with ‘promising’ players who ended up being basically what you would typically expect them to be relative to their draft position. But Pierre doesn’t even have to be that to be surpassed as the fifth, nickel defender.
Lest we forget, the Steelers signed Arthur Maulet after the draft. Though listed as a safety, he logged more than half of his snaps in the slot last year for the New York Jets. He has diverse experience throughout the secondary, in fact, and is probably the frontrunner right now to be their nickel.
Then there is Shakur Brown and Tre Norwood, a pair of late-round or undrafted players, both of whom have the potential to come in and contribute, displaying playmaking ability in college, with five picks each in 2020. And I didn’t even mention the potential for Justin Layne to still develop. He is 23, after all.