The Steelers have struck out on cornerbacks in recent years, but rookie Justin Layne could be exactly what Pittsburgh is looking for.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been awful at drafting cornerbacks over the past decade. From guys like Joe Burnett, Curtis Brown, and Cortez Allen all the way up tot the most recent fails in Senquez Golson and Artie Burns, the Steelers have been perhaps the worst team in the league at evaluating the cornerback position.
While the Steelers’ draft history doesn’t give us any confidence that they could turn things around, maybe Michigan State cornerback Justin Layne can be an exception to the mold.
Justin Layne was a highly touted prospect coming out of college, as a young Junior cornerback who turned just 21 years old in January. He possesses incredible size and length for the position, and it was evident that he used his vine-like arms to his advantage on draft film.
During my time studying the draft this offseason, I had 1st-2nd round grade on Justin Layne coming out – and the consensus big board (comprised by my brother Tyler Jaggi) would concur:
Tyler took the time to develop a consensus 2019 draft board that displayed the averaged big board rankings of 25 draft analysts. On it, Justin Layne was slotted at 42 overall (with an average rank of 49.5).
The Steelers, however, were able to land Layne at pick 83 in the draft. Mel Kiper was even shocked he lasted this long. Kiper was quoted saying that he thought Layne would ‘go in the top 40.’
As it stands, the Steelers got a steal in Justin Layne at pick 83. Pro Football Focus Steelers recently posted an impressive statistic on Layne and what he was able to do in coverage over the past two seasons:
Layne was fantastic when targeted beyond ten yards over his past two years at Michigan. As a former wide receiver, it didn’t take him very long to get acclimated to the defensive side of the ball. The Pro Football Focus Analysis Team spoke highly of Justin Layne in an article of their top 15 cornerback prospects in the NFL Draft:
"Layne’s 89.5 coverage grade last year was ninth-best among Power-5 corners in the nation. He also dabbled at receiver where he took 36 snaps this past season."
PFF had Layne ranked as the 6th best corner in the 2019 draft. He was rated over players like Rock Ya-Sin, Sean Bunting, and Joejuan Williams – each of whom were drafted higher than Layne this year.
The Steelers really haven’t drafted a solid cornerback since 3rd rounder, Keenan Lewis, a decade ago. Justin Layne may not have the experience Pittsburgh would like to see, but he has remarkable length and athleticism to go with quality tape for a guy with just two seasons at cornerback under his belt.
Justin Layne is still a work in progress, and the Steelers are fortunate to have the luxury of playing someone like Steven Nelson ahead of him. However, if Layne continues to improve at the pace he has been, it won’t be long until he earns a full-time spot on the Steelers defense.
The Steelers have been downright awful at drafting cornerbacks in the past decade, and none of the guys they drafted during that time have ever made it to a Pro Bowl. However, Justin Layne is a new breed of talent with tremendous upside. He could be the guy the Steelers have been searching for all along at the cornerback position.