After losing Mike Hilton in free agency to the Cincinnati Bengals, there has been much speculation as to who will replace the former Steelers CB in the nickel in 2021. The team has Cam Sutton returning on a newly-signed two-year contract extension this offseason, but with the intention to play him primarily on the boundary in base packages, it may be wise to keep him in one spot instead on moving all over the defense unless he proves capable from a communication perspective and either James Pierre or Justin Layne prove they can hold down the fort on the outside if Sutton kicks inside on sub packages. While this is a possibility, Pittsburgh has several options in-house of guys that provide a specific skill set to contribute well to the nickel defender spot in their own unique ways.
One of the guys that has been brought up by the coaching staff during OTAs and minicamp is safety Antoine Brooks Jr. While Brooks didn’t survive initial roster cuts, he reverted to the practice squad and was elevated to the active roster later in the year, contributing on special teams and a sparse amount of snaps on defense, particularly in Pittsburgh’s first matchup with the Bengals. Brooks lined up in the nickel spot for most of his snaps and played well. He showed to be in position in coverage against WRs and TEs split out in the slot and played well in run defense, coming downhill in run support showing good pursuit of the football.
His size and physicality make him an enticing option for the nickel spot given his ability to fight through blocks against the run and the screen game and serve a dime backer/strong safety role for the defense who wants to be more physical against teams that want to run out of the spread. He also is a great option to have when asking the nickel to blitz, having the size and strength to fight through RBs hoping to block him and take the QB to the ground. However, Brooks isn’t the greatest testing athlete and his ability to move in a backpedal and laterally is shaky, making him susceptible to being beat by quick route runners in the slot or speedier ones stretching the seam in the middle of the defense.
Another logical option to fill slot duties are one of the two rookie DBs added by the Steelers this offseason: Tre Norwood and Shakur Brown. Norwood may have been drafted in the seventh round, but Mike Tomlin declared him a “swiss army knife/utility back” type of player. That is what you see when watching Norwood on tape. He has been used as a deep safety, split zone safety, a boundary corner, and in the nickel during his time with the Sooners.
While his play at Oklahoma has had its ups and downs, he enjoyed a good 2020 season where he recorded five INTs in ten starts to close out the season. Pittsburgh has always been enamored with ball production at the college level when it comes to defensive backs, and Norwood is capable of taking the ball away. However, Norwood has a frail frame and is more of a liability when it comes to run support, missing tackles too often or having runners make him the nail opposed to the hammer.
In the case of former Michigan State Spartan Shakur Brown, he too showed off his ball hawking skills in his final season in East Lansing. He has great instincts in coverage and is feisty at the catch point, showing good break on the football and the competitiveness to break up the pass should he not jump in front of the receiver for the interception. He doesn’t panic when the ball is in the air and plays bigger than his listed size, being in good position against larger receivers. While capable of running with receivers in man coverage, his reactiveness and anticipation make him a good fit when asked to play underneath zone coverage looks, as well as be utilized on corner blitzes that Hilton was so well known for.
The case against Brown are the reasons why he ended up not getting drafted despite being a talented football player. He lacks ideal size and his athleticism is below-average, making him susceptible to deep speed on the outside and over the middle. He is more willing of a tackler than Norwood is, but his lack of bulk and strength can be a negative when trying to fend off blocks against the run. Brown also has had trouble staying on the field, missing games in both 2018 and 2019 with different injuries that can be a cause for concern going from college to the pros considering a 17-game schedule with preseason games and hopefully playoff games, as well.
One final option that makes a lot of sense to play the nickel position is UFA signing Arthur Maulet. Maulet has been more of a journeyman during his first few seasons in the league, spending time with the Saints, Colts, and Jets playing a variety of roles for each team. He has extensive experience playing in the slot for New York as well as at boundary corner, single high safety, split zone safety, in the dime, and even as the strong safety. He is a competitor as a defensive back, having his motor run hot on every play competing through the echo of the whistle. He is physical in run support, having no issue stick his face in the fan when looking to make a tackle. He has good movement skills in coverage and can break on the ball well once its thrown, challenging the catch point and playing through the receivers’ hands to force the incompletion. While he has a fair amount of starting experience over the past two seasons, Maulet shouldn’t be seen as a “high quality” option as he has been bouncing around the league and is now 27 years old. Maulet also isn’t the best at playing the football in the air, only recording two career INTs, both of which were on bad decisions by the QB or a batted ball into the air.
Personally, while the upside may be limited, and the playmaking may be capped, I would hedge choosing Maulet to start the season in the nickel spot. Brown may have more upside as a natural fit in the nickel with the ball skills to create turnovers, but he is an undrafted rookie that lacks deep speed and will need some time to adjust to the speed of the NFL game and is likely best suited to contribute on special teams and learn behind the starters as he develops into a starting-caliber option down the line.
While Antoine Brooks Jr. may not be a rookie, he has under 30 defensive snaps under his belt and does lack that fluidity in pass coverage to run with slot receivers over the middle of the field and up the seam. While Maulet isn’t a high-end cover man, he is more capable to matching and mirroring receivers in coverage than Brooks, who would struggle with the likes of Tyler Boyd, Jarvis Landry, and possibly Mark Andrews as receivers he should expect to see in the slot in AFC North matchups. Maulet has starting experience over the other options and combines coverage skills with being a willing and capable run defender. I wouldn’t be surprised if Pittsburgh tried multiple players at the position throughout the season, but if it were up to me, I would like to see Maulet line up in the nickel at the start of the season Week 1 in Buffalo.
What are your thoughts on the nickel position heading into 2021? Do you see a clear-cut player as the favorite to win the job, or do you think it may be a committee approach depending on how they use Cam Sutton on the boundary? Post your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!