Steelers training camp: Biggest positional battle to watch in 2021
By Tommy Jaggi
The Pittsburgh Steelers have several big positional battles to keep an eye on, but here is their most intriguing training camp battle in 2021.
With Steelers training camp already underway, all eyes are going to be on their rookie class as we look for insight as to how they could help an ailing offense from 2021. Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, and Kendrick Green could all serve sizeable roles for the team this year and be key contributors to their offensive success.
While the rookies look to make their mark from the gate, something potentially even more important will be going down on the opposite side of the ball. Each year, there are a number of important positions that are up for grabs on the Steelers, and training camp and the preseason are where young players put together their best efforts in an attempt to climb the latter.
Though there are several important positional battles to keep an eye on at Steelers training camp in 2021, none is more important than the battle at cornerback. This may seem a bit overblown, as Pittsburgh has their top two players in place with Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton, but the team’s third and fourth cornerbacks could serve very important roles in 2021.
Why cornerback is the biggest Steelers training camp battle to watch
The Steelers have a few other big positional battles in 2021. Kendrick Green isn’t guaranteed to be the starting center from the gate, as B.J. Finney and J.C. Hassenauer look to battle for positioning (one of which is unlikely to make the final roster) However, it was reported after the first training camp practice that Green was running as the first-team center. In addition, the wide receivers will have a chance to shift in the pecking order young linebackers could joust for a bigger role in 2021.
Still, none of these battles come close to being as important as the fight to become Pittsburgh’s third and fourth cornerbacks this year. If you recall, the Steelers had four cornerbacks that saw the field often last year in Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Mike Hilton, and Cameron Sutton – two of which have long since departed.
Because they were four deep at the position, this allowed the Steelers to run a number of different looks in nickel and dime packages, as having trustworthy cornerbacks allowed them to have one of the best pass defenses in 2021.
Now, there are some huge question marks at the position. Though Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton don’t seem to be in any sort of danger of losing their jobs, the competition behind them is both young and inexperienced. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as this typically comes with more upside. However, there’s a chance that nobody proves worthy of stepping into a much larger role in 2021.
The two players who will be battling for the bulk of the snaps that will be on the table are James Pierre and Justin Layne. Layne was a former 3rd round draft pick back in 2019 who possesses rare length and athletic traits for the position, but he really struggled over his first two seasons.
On the other hand, Pierre is a sub-par athlete and former undrafted pick from Florida Atlantic who impressed as a rookie in 2020. Still, with just 144 career defensive snaps between the two of them, according to Pro Football Reference, the Steelers are going to be entrusting a very inexperienced player in a role of significant importance to Pittsburgh’s pass defense in 2021.
It’s likely that either Layne or Pierre will be the right outside cornerback when the team moves to nickel and dime defenses with Sutton sliding back in the slot. There may even be packages where they use all four cornerbacks at the same time. In addition, some young undrafted free agents like Shakur Brown and Mark Gilbert will have a chance to battle for a roster spot and potentially some time on defense as well.
Pittsburgh has some serious depth concerns at the position, but we know how important it is to have good cornerbacks, and we hope that this will be a tough-fought positional battle at Steelers training camp this year. Keep an eye on these players in the coming weeks.