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“On The Bubble” Series: Cornerbacks

New series here at Steelers Depot as we dive into the roster position-by-position and look at who may be sitting on the “roster bubble” heading into training camp after the conclusion of free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft.  For the next part of this series, we will be looking at several cornerbacks likely fighting for the same roster spots.

The Names To Know:

Justin Layne (age 24)

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Justin Layne out of Michigan State in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, betting on the athletic traits and impressive length (6’2, 192lb) he brought to the table. While he saw action in 34 games during his Spartan career and racked up 130 tackles, three INTs, a half a sack, and a defensive touchdown, Layne was considered a raw prospect coming out being only a junior that lacked fluidity and natural instincts in coverage to match up with receivers consistently on the outside. Through three NFL seasons, Layne has mainly been a backup/special teams contributor, seeing action in 43 games with zero starts while collecting 41 total tackles and one fumble recovery on 145 defensive snaps.

Layne is currently entering the final year of his rookie deal and carries a cap number of $1.195 million according to Over The Cap. While Layne has largely failed to develop into that long, rangy man CB Pittsburgh envisioned him to be when they selected him, he has made himself quite the asset on special teams, playing nearly 600 snaps there since he was drafted and finished third on the team in 2021 in special teams tackles. This makes him a candidate to stick on the roster as CB5 or CB6 if Pittsburgh decides to carry six CBs. Still only 24 years old, the hope is Layne can come into camp showcasing more consistency in coverage while still providing quality ST play.

James Pierre (age 25)

James Pierre also has made himself a viable special teams contributor and depth piece at CB for Pittsburgh since being added to the roster in 2020 as a UDFA out of Florida Atlantic. While with the Owls, Pierre picked up 120 total stops, 18 PBUs, 8.5 TFLs, and three INTs in 39 games played. He ran poorly at the NFL Combine (4.59 40), causing his draft stock to fall despite good length (6’0, 183lb). Pierre managed to make the Steelers initial 53-man roster in 2020 and got four starts in 2021, collecting 47 total tackles, four PBUs, three forced fumbles, and one INT against the Denver Broncos.

Film Room: Haden, Pierre Step Up Against Run

While many, including myself, were hopeful that Pierre would become the next great UDFA pickup by Pittsburgh last season as a potential starter, he tended to struggle in coverage at times, lacking the awareness and long speed to keep explosive receivers like Ja’Marr Chase from getting over top of him for explosive plays. This led to Pierre getting bench and hardly seeing the field down the stretch.

 

Given the addition of Levi Wallace and re-signing of Ahkello Witherspoon, it can be assumed that Pierre is likely viewed as no more than a depth piece and special teams contributor heading into 2022. However, new DC Teryl Austin lauded Pierre’s play at times last season, suggesting he may be able to redeem himself and secure a roster spot with a strong training camp.

Teryl Austin: James Pierre Will ‘End Up Being A Good Player For Us’

Arthur Maulet ( age 28)

On May 7 in 2021, the steelers signed DB Arthur Maulet to a one-year deal in hopes of adding depth to a secondary that had just lost Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson. In his first full season in Pittsburgh Maulet saw action in 16 games with two starts playing in the nickel corner spot and recorded 47 total tackles, five TFLs, two QB hits, one forced fumble, and one pass breakup on 379 defensive snaps. According to Pro Football Reference, Maulet allowed 22 receptions on 29 targets in coverage (75.9%) for 294 yards and a TD, amounting to a 119.0 passer rating allowed when targeted.

Pittsburgh elected to re-up Maulet’s contract this offseason, inking him to a new two-year deal. Maulet is a feisty, aggressive defender that has no issue sticking his face in the fan in run support and will compete to contest passes when in coverage. However, he is limited as an athlete and doesn’t possess great size (5’10, 190lb) to battle bigger, more physical receivers on a down-to-down basis. He started rotating with Tre Norwood in the nickel last season and the team has since then added DB Damontae Kazee via FA and could stand to kick Cam Sutton to the nickel with the addition of Wallace.

Rapoport: Steelers Re-sign CB Arthur Maulet To Two-Year Deal

While Maulet will have a chance to battle for a roster spot, the number of bodies in the room with a similar skill set may hurt his chances.

Chris Steele (age 21)

Shortly after the 2022 NFL Draft concluded, the Steelers announced that they were signing USC CB Chris Steele as a UDFA. According to a study conducted by Steelers Depot’s resident expert in analytics Andrew Shaver, Steele faced 117 target in coverage during his three-year career with the Trojans and allowed 72 receptions (61.5%) for 865 yards and nine TDs while batting away nine passes and picking off three others. According to Alex Kozora’s UDFA Profile on Steele, the young CB is a good athlete (4.48 40, 37.5” vert, 10’6” broad) that has good size, but lacks the bulk to be a asset against the run or to battle outside physical receivers at the catch point, calling him a raw project that shouldn’t have declared early.

2022 UDFA Player Profiles: USC CB Chris Steele

Steele has an uphill battle to climb if he wants to make the 53-man roster, most likely projecting as an outside CB that will have to beat out either Pierre or Layne for a roster spot. He will have to prove to be a viable asset on special teams to accomplish this, as both Layne and Pierre ranked in the top five in ST tackles on the team last season. Likely, Steele’s best bet is to make the practice squad and develop there for a year and attempt to make the roster in 2023 should Pittsburgh not continue to add outside bodies to the CB room.

What are your thoughts on the names listed “on the bubble” at the CB position? Who do you think is safe and who do you think is in danger of losing their roster spot during training camp and the preseason? How do you see this position group shaking outcome the regular season as it stands today/ Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!

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