2021 Pre-Training Camp Roster Review: Cornerback

The last time that we took a look back at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster in review, it was weeks before the 2021 NFL Draft took place. It would be safe to say that quite a bit has changed since then, and the changes apply to almost every position on the roster, some major changes, some minor, though some have remained largely static.

We are closing in on the opening of the Steelers’ several weeks of training camp, this time back at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, so it would be a good time to pause and take stock of where the team stands at each position as we head into the most critical process of the offseason.

Position: Cornerback

Total Positional Figure: 11

Additions: 6

Deletions: 5

Players Retained:

Joe Haden: Entering his 12th season now, and fifth with the Steelers, Haden remains a quality starting cornerback, but everyone involved understands what’s on the horizon. He’s in the final year of his contract, and it remains to be seen if that will be the final year of his career, or at least in Pittsburgh.

Cameron Sutton: With Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton gone, Pittsburgh re-signed Sutton to step into a full-time starting role. While he has experience starting both inside and outside, it remains to be seen exactly where he will play most.

Justin Layne: Now in his third season as a former third-round pick, Layne is at a critical stage in his career. He has the opportunity to compete for the fifth defensive back role, but so far, it doesn’t seem as though he has done anything to distinguish himself. And his arrest earlier in the offseason didn’t help anything.

James Pierre: On the other hand, Pierre, the second-year former undrafted free agent, has drawn attention to himself. He picked off Ben Roethlisberger twice during one minicamp practice. He is one of the clear frontrunners for the nickel job.

Antoine Brooks Jr.: But others have indicated that it’s Antoine Brooks’ job to lose. Though actually a safety, reports indicate he spent the spring lining up as the slot defender as they look to replace Hilton.

Stephen Denmark: A futures signing, Denmark is raw material but intrigues with his 6’2” height. Yet I heard no mention of him so far.

Players Added:

Tre Norwood: The only defensive back drafted this year, Norwood is a do-anything defensive back who has already discussed his appreciation for the ability to practice in multiple roles. While it would be difficult to get on the field as a rookie, he hopes to at least make a run of it.

Arthur Maulet: A veteran with both slot and outside experience, Pittsburgh signed Maulet after the draft, but we have heard little about him since.

Shakur Brown: Brown recorded five interceptions in college last year. He earned the largest signing bonus among the Steelers’ college free agents this year.

Mark Gilbert: Another college free agent, Gilbert is a true cornerback, and there were some positive, albeit minor, reports on him.

Lamont Wade: A Penn State product, Wade is a slot-capable safety who said that he signed with the Steelers in part with an eye on Hilton’s role. There has been some minor positive press on him, as with Gilbert.

Players Lost: 

Steven Nelson: Signed in 2019, Pittsburgh released Nelson this offseason as a salary cap casualty after two years of quality play. He remains unsigned, though there has been as of yet no indication that he is close to signing with anybody.

Mike Hilton: After four years as the Steelers’ nickel defender, he signed a four-year, $24 million deal with the Cincinnati Bengals, staying in the AFC North. One of the team’s primary tasks in training camp is figuring out how to replace him.

Trevor Williams: Signed to the practice squad at the end of last season, Williams, like Maulet, is a veteran who does have experience playing both outside and inside. But the Steelers opted to let him go after the draft.

Notes and Camp Outlook: 

It’s a commonly-held opinion that the cornerback position might be the weakest on the team—though in reality, there are several positions about which that has been said. It’s not easy to lose two starters here, though, even if you accept the premise that Sutton is ready to seamlessly replace one of them, or perhaps half of each.

The focus on training camp will be figuring out who can play in the slot. It’s possible that if they are happy with Brooks, he will be the primary fifth defensive back this year, but they could mix and match, with Pierre generating early buzz.

But there is plenty of time left, including an actual preseason this year, and that could be a time for somebody like Maulet to stand out and show that his experience matters. The rookie Brown is someone who came in with a lot of buzz, but we haven’t heard of him since, so that will be his opportunity to showcase himself.

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