2021 Training Camp Battles: Starting Nickel Back

With training camp just around the corner, it’s time to turn our focus on what is going on within each position, and on the roster as a whole. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be taking a closer look at some of the roster battles that we expect to see unfold over the course of training camp as the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for the start of the 2021 season.

Unlike last season, which was carried out through a pandemic, things should return much to normal this year, which should help provide us with clearer insights into where people stand. The return of the preseason in particular is a crucial window into operations that we lacked a year ago.

Position: Nickel Back

Up for Grabs: Starting Job

In the Mix: James Pierre, Antoine Brooks Jr., Arthur Maulet, Lamont Wade, Tre Norwood, Shakur Brown, Justin Layne

As you can see, there are a lot of people in the mix as the Steelers figure out the best way to fill the spot of Mike Hilton, who left in free agency after four years to sign with the Cincinnati Bengals. Hilton’s rare diversity of talent makes it an especially trying task. Pittsburgh had come to value the many hats he was able to wear from that slot position.

The two primary candidates, however, based on OTAs and minicamp reports, appear to be a pair of second-year players, who would play different positions. Former college free agent James Pierre would come in for the nickel and play on the outside, if he were to win the job. Sixth-round safety Antoine Brooks Jr. would be a slot/box defender if he wins, leaving Cameron Sutton on the outside.

During OTAs, defensive backs coach Teryl Austin said that the coaches were looking into their options to play the slot, leaving Sutton on the outside. It seems that they are hoping to find a one-for-one replacement for Hilton before resorting to alternatives.

If, for example, Pierre were to win the job, then Sutton, who would play outside in the ‘base’ 3-4 defense, would slide inside into the slot in nickel and dime packages, which generally accounts for about two thirds of the average defense’s playing time.

Arthur Maulet is another candidate, and the only one with meaningful playing experience. He manned the slot and safety spots for the New York Jets the past two years. He also has experience on the outside, but we haven’t heard much about him this offseason yet.

Tre Norwood, Shakur Brown, and Lamont Wade are all rookies, the former a seventh-round pick and the others undrafted. It would be very difficult for any rookie to crack the starting lineup, particularly in the slot, which requires more information processing. But the Steelers have been giving Norwood a lot of work.

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