In a recent press conference, All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick spoke highly of two young Pittsburgh Steelers defensive backs.
Since the Steelers lost Mike Hilton in free agency and elected to cut cornerback Steven Nelson for salary cap reasons, fans have been wondering how the secondary is going to look in 2021. It’s a valid question, no doubt.
Despite their offseason losses, Pittsburgh made virtually no attempt to add defensive back help via the 2021 NFL Draft, and they have yet to bring in a veteran free agent that could contribute to the team this year.
Pittsburgh’s will have veteran Joe Haden returning to man the starting left cornerback position, while the team was able to retain Cameron Sutton on a two-year extension this offseason. However, the depth beyond them is more than concerning.
Between their group of young, inexperienced cornerbacks, either James Pierre or Justin Layne is expected to earn a much larger role with the team in 2021 as a potential starting cornerback in nickel and dime defenses.
Recently, Minkah Fitzpatrick addressed the media regarding the pair of young cornerbacks. While he didn’t take the bait to give any details as to which corner might be ahead in the competition, Minkah praised both Layne and Pierre – nothing that ‘it’s going to a tough competition.’
Justinm [Layne] and James [Pierre], both of them are out there competing every day. Both of them are hungry. Both of them worked very hard this offseason. They came back in shape; they look good. I could tell that they studied the fundamentals, the playbook, the whole nine, so it’s going to be a tough competition, for sure.
We wouldn’t have expected Fitzpatrick to give anything but praise to his teammates. However, he did seem optimistic that they will have a good cornerback room in 2021 and that they both work very hard. Unfortunately, that doesn’t answer the question everyone is waiting to find out.
Who will be the Steelers third cornerback in 2021?
I know a lot of fans and Pittsburgh media want to dub James Pierre as the ‘next man up’ at the cornerback position after seemingly passing Justin Layne on the depth chart late in the season for the Steelers, but I would err on the side of caution with that assumption. While Layne did have a few impressive plays, he has combined for just 35 total defensive snaps in both the regular season and the playoffs.
It’s a new year, and the Steelers are likely going to give each of these cornerbacks a clean slate in 2021. With an equal opportunity to win the job, it’s hard to say for sure which player will emerge. Of the two, Layne is taller and longer and tested as a significantly better athlete coming out of Michigan State in 2019. He was also considered a much better prospect entering the NFL Draft, and some even had a late first-round grade on him.
However, Layne’s draft status doesn’t mean much of anything at this point, as he has yet to prove anything in the NFL. Pierre, on the other hand, has average size but did not test as a good athlete at all at the 2019 NFL Combine. According to Relative Athletic Scores, the former undrafted Florida Atlantic cornerback tested in the 37th percentile of NFL cornerbacks.
Obviously, we hope the best player wins out, and it’s good to know that both defensive backs have been working diligently in an effort to become ‘the guy’ for Pittsburgh in 2021. We don’t know what we will be getting with either player, but let’s hope that ‘next man up’ philosophy pays off.