Sports fans love their underdogs, and following their progress toward contributions and success. One of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ top underdog stories from last year was undrafted cornerback James Pierre out of Florida Atlantic. Pierre made the 53-man roster despite having no preseason to demonstrate his wares.
He not only lasted the entire season on the 53-man roster as a positive contributor on special teams, he eventually earned some injury fill-in defensive playing time. Pierre now gets to compete for the starting nickel role this summer.
According to Noah Strackbein, his observations from OTAs tell him that Pierre is probably the frontrunner at this very early stage to work his way into that fifth defensive back role, now open with the departures of slot defender Mike Hilton and fellow cornerback Steven Nelson.
“Look, James Pierre is a giant question mark, but he looks good enough”, he writes for AllSteelers, Sports Illustrated’s Steelers-centric portal. Conversely, he writes, “Justin Layne isn’t standing out enough to make noise. Pierre is. And until proven otherwise, that should mean he’s the guy on the outside when Sutton bounces to the slot”.
Layne is entering his third season since Pittsburgh selected him in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. While he has not navigated the upward trajectory the team was hoping for, he did log more than 100 defensive snaps last season in the dime defense as an injury replacement.
When Joe Haden missed the postseason game due to a positive COVID-19 test, it was Pierre, rather than Layne, who came in and logged a handful of snaps in the dime defense. That signaled to many that Pierre had passed him on the depth chart.
If that was indeed the case, and Strackbein’s observations are to be taken at face value, then it appears that Pierre is putting himself on a path to be a significant contributor by his second season. Should he win the nickel defender job, in which role he would undoubtedly play on the outside, he stands to log 600-700 snaps.
“At 6’2, 185-pounds, Pierre looks big, physical and plays comfortably”, the Sports Illustrated reporter wrote in his OTA observations column yesterday. “The step between year one and OTAs has been pretty significant. Now, it’s about continuing to show that progression”.
As he hints at the end, there is still a long road ahead. Mandatory minicamp is tomorrow, and then there is all of training camp and the preseason. There is very little determined by spring drills, but there are certainly times where you can get a glimpse of dark-horse candidates who stick out.
With the pandemic going on last year, there were no OTAs, no minicamp, no preseason. It closed training camp. Nobody got to see Pierre last year until the regular season. At that point, it wasn’t much. This time is as important to him as it is for observers to learn more about him.