Few readers, if any, had ever heard of James Pierre before when the Pittsburgh Steelers first announced that they had signed the 6’2” Florida Atlantic cornerback to a rookie college free agent contract following the 2020 NFL Draft. He has since grown into a fan favorite, and has positioned himself to be a starter in the team’s nickel defense this year.
That possibility became much more likely when the Steelers waived Antoine Brooks Jr. with an injury designation. The second-year safety was the favorite, seemingly, for most of the offseason to be their slot defender, but he appears to have suffered an injury that was more serious than was initially clear.
We have more or less heard nothing but positive things about Pierre since he was first signed. The fact that he even made the 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie out of a small school when there was no preseason was remarkable in itself, but he has continued to climb the ladder—even if he’s not there yet, as senior defensive assistant Teryl Austin noted.
“He’s done well. He’s got a ways to go still as a player and learning, but all signs are pointing up for James”, he told reporters on Tuesday. “He works his tail off. He competes hard. He’s tough. He’ll continue to get better. When he’s good enough to put in there, time will tell that, but I think he’s working in the right direction”.
The Steelers will have to figure out in which direction they’re headed by the time they are up in Buffalo to play the Bills in their regular-season opener, because I’m sure there will come a point in time during the game in which they are going to want to have a fifth defensive back on the field.
At the moment, there are not a ton of options. They could play veteran Arthur Maulet in the slot, who has experience there. He would be the most likely alternative, provided that he is healthy in time for the start of the regular season.
But Pierre has always been high on the list of possibilities. With Joe Haden not needing much practice time, the second-year cornerback has still had the opportunity to log a lot of first-team reps, playing opposite Cameron Sutton, even as they got looks at Brooks and Maulet in the slot with the first-team defense.
The past three preseason games have been by far our most extensive look at Pierre since he was drafted. He only played a couple dozen snaps on defense last season over the course of three games. He figures to log several hundred by the time Christmas rolls around.