Just as he has the last four seasons, Joe Haden enters the 2021 season as the No. 1 cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s stability atop what was a long-term problem position for the franchise, and a constant source of veteran leadership for a secondary that has done nothing but get younger in past offseasons.
Things don’t look like they did last season beneath Haden on the depth chart, though. After two seasons as his fellow starter, Steven Nelson is on the free agent market after Pittsburgh cut him. After four seasons of growing into one of the best slot corners in football, Mike Hilton now plays for the Cincinnati Bengals following a free agent signing. Only Cameron Sutton, bumping from third corner to Nelson’s starting spot, remains the same among Haden’s corner running mates.
The 11-year veteran spoke about all the new players occupying spots below him on the depth chart Wednesday, during a minicamp media session.
“I think it just comes to guys stepping up. It’s going to make a lot of opportunities for dudes like Antoine Brooks, for Justin Layne, for James Pierre. These dudes are going to have really, really good opportunities to be able to step in there and make significant jumps in their careers,” Haden said.
The opportunity is there for Layne and Pierre at cornerback with so many question marks on the depth chart waiting to be filled. Haden and Sutton occupy the starting spots. That leaves room for two corners to fill the slot/third CB roles left by Sutton and Hilton.
Pierre, when Haden missed the team’s playoff game last season, was the player who actually stepped in to replace some of Haden’s snaps. An undrafted player out of Florida Atlantic, a strong showing in the preseason and workouts earned him a place on the team. That experience has him as a frontrunner for No. 3 CB duties.
Layne, a third-round pick in 2019 from Michigan State, also has a chance to turn around what’s been a disappointing career so far. Despite the Day 2 pick used on him, Layne has struggled to earn snaps in the regular season, and lost out to Pierre on that chance to end last season.
Those two are the likeliest players to seize the opportunities available. Also contending are rookies, primarily versatile defensive back Tre Norwood taken in the seventh round this draft, and Shakur Brown, another Michigan State corner and one of the top undrafted players this season. And in the mix to fight for snaps depending on the scheme are guys like Brooks, a safety by trade who the team has hoped to use in a safety/linebacker role.
Then there is Sutton. Not new to an important role in the Steelers’ secondary, his promotion from a third corner to starter comes with much bigger expectations. Haden and others have seen how well Sutton can do, though.
“I think signing Cam Sutton, now he’s going to be able to thrive out there on the outside corner. He’s a great nickel and outside,” Haden said. “I think he was going to be able to be a starter on a lot of NFL teams regardless. So I think it’s really good to be able to keep him, he’s going to be a solid corner starter in the league.”
Using minicamp as one of the earliest steps to figuring out who is playing below Haden and Sutton, getting 11-on-11 snaps will let every prospective next Hilton or Sutton show what they can do against one of the top receiving rooms in the NFL.
“Having other options with Justin Layne and Pierre, those dudes are really, really capable, and I just can’t wait for them to be able to show their skills,” Haden said.