By Jeremy Hritz
There has been an abundance of buzz about 2nd year cornerback out of Florida Atlantic, James Pierre. Pierre, who made the team last year as a rookie free agent, outplayed Justin Layne and earned snaps near the end of 2020, and now, targets camp through the favorable eyes of his coaches, as he competes for a role on the Steelers defense. But what exactly is the story on Pierre, and what can be expected of him in the approaching season?
High School and College in Florida
Pierre played high school football at Deerfield Beach in Florida, and over the course of the season his senior year in 15-16, he picked off 4 passes and tallied 48 tackles, in addition to serving as a punt returner at times, accumulating 79 yards on 4 returns. Pierre helped his team earn 10 wins, and along the way, caught the attention of scouts for his play and was named one of the top 25 prospects in Broward County. Despite challenges with academic intelligibility, Pierre ultimately landed with Florida Atlantic, where he played his college football before signing as an undrafted free agent with the Steelers.
At Florida Atlantic, Pierre opted out of his senior year and declared for the NFL draft, which seems questionable now knowing he went undrafted. In college, Pierre totaled 120 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions, 18 passes defenses, and 2 forced fumbles. He also played on special teams as a kick returner, with 3 returns for 61 yards. Coming out of Atlantic, he was an intriguing prospect because of his potential and frame, but because he was raw, he was slated as a late round pick or an undrafted free agent, which manifested as the reality.
Pierre is solid against the run, and with his size, 6’, 183, he is rangy enough to play on the outside, where he is slated to provide depth for the Steelers. His film shows an ability to break on the football when diagnosing the play and to deliver a physical hit to punish the receiver. In terms of growth, scouts note his inexperience as a technician and struggle to play the ball instead of the receiver. Despite the areas for growth, the Steelers signed him in Spring 2020, and following recent practices, it looks like Pierre may be a find.
In 2020, Pierre got some work on special teams and a few snaps on defense over Layne, and that momentum has carried over into 2021, where he garnered the attention of his teammates and coaches, picking off 2 Ben Roethlisberger passes in minicamp which compelled the veteran to offer praise to the second year player, doing wonders for his confidence. With 35 snaps on defense in 2020 and 238 special teams snaps, Pierre enters the new season with a lot of hope and optimism. Secondary coach Teryl Austin said about Pierre, “I think there will be a big jump with him. I’m hoping we have all of a sudden found ourselves a nice, big corner for the future.” This is pretty high praise for a second year player, and there is legitimate reason to be excited about his prospects for the upcoming season.
Pierre seems to have lept over Layne as the third man on the outside, and if that is the case, he will undoubtedly get snaps on defense this season. There has also been speculation that in subpackage defense, Pierre would go outside, while Cam Sutton would move inside to the slot corner position. While this is just speculation, it is a story worth watching develop in training camp.
The Steelers have been tepid at drafting cornerbacks recently, but they could have a find at CB in Pierre. As a player who was raw coming out of college and needed time to develop, he may have possibly found the optimal environment. With the turnover in the secondary, emergence is needed from the younger players, and the Steelers are hoping Pierre does just that. And there’s no shortage of work ethic from Pierre either, as he has stated he is catching 100 footballs every day to develop his ball skills as a result of guidance from Head Coach Mike Tomlin.
A guy like that you can root for.