The Steelers drafted a long, athletic cornerback in 2019. Here’s how Justin Layne fits into Pittsburgh’s plans for the future.
The Steelers needed a cornerback heading into the 2019 offseason, and for the first time in quite some time, they addressed things exactly how I wanted them too. After years of subpar play at the position, a few moves they made had the ability to take the cornerback group to the next level.
Steven Nelson was one of the players I wanted to land in Pittsburgh the most in 2019. Though he was the most targeted cornerback in the league in 2018 with Kansas City, he allowed just 51.3 percent of passes to be completed and a 72.6 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks.
But even with Nelson’s acquisition last year, there will still a few cornerbacks I had a lot of interest in heading into the 2019 NFL Draft. Justin Layne was near the top of the list.
Initially, I would have loved to have landed Layne in the second round of the draft. However, after using their second-round pick to move up to pick 10 and secure linebacker Devin Bush, I thought Layne would be a pipe dream. Fortunately, they were able to land him with the second of their third-round picks.
Layne is an incredibly intriguing prospect for several reasons. He had turned 21 years old just months before the draft, and his physical makeup was incredibly rare. At nearly 6’2” with 33” arms, Layne possessed prototype measurables for an outside cornerback in the NFL. In addition, he tested as an 87th percentile athlete, according to Three Sigma Athlete.
Layne also flashed on tape at Michigan State. Despite being recruited as a wide receiver, Layne was talented to switch to defense and enter the draft as a true junior in 2019. His 89.5 coverage grade was the best among all Power-5 cornerbacks in the nation, according to Pro Football Focus.
For the Steelers, Layne could have a promising road ahead of him. Though Joe Haden and Steven Nelson will dominate snaps on the outside again in 2020 (assuming they both stay healthy), Layne will be waiting and learning under their wings. Because of being so raw, a redshirt season was needed last year for the rookie cornerback. While he’s no doubt better prepared this year, Nelson and Haden both played very well in 2019, and it will be hard to take them off the field.
This won’t last forever though. Joe Haden is already 31 years old, and he is set to have a cap hit of nearly $16 million in 2021. If his play takes a dip, the Steelers could cut him and save $7 million in cap space, according to Over the Cap.
When Haden is gone, Justin Layne will get his chance to start on the outside opposite of Steven Nelson. By that point, he will be well-prepared to step into this role.
It still remains to be seen if Layne could eventually become a long-time starter for the Steelers, and much of that will be determined by his play over the next two seasons. If he does, however, Layne could make an already good draft class with Devin Bush and Diontae Johnson even better.