By Jeremy Hritz
Our depth chart analysis continues with the cornerback position, and with the departure of Stephen Nelson and the aging of Joe Haden, there are question marks at the position. Beyond Haden, the CB room is unproven, young, though hungry and eager, to show they can contribute in the Steelers secondary. Just how much they can contribute remains to be seen.
It All Starts With Joe
At left CB, Haden will begin his 5th season with the Steelers, and he will be the stabilizing veteran for the young unit and an overall leader for the defense. At 31 years of age and 11 seasons of wisdom at his disposal, there are some concerns about waning speed and ability to cover and keep up with explosive receivers. While Haden has never been obscenely fast, he has relied on his quickness and technique to serve as the team’s best cover man. Haden has been hard at work this off-season to maintain his speed, so any drop off will not be the result of lack of effort. While we cannot expect him to be the stud he was as a young player in Cleveland, Haden can be counted on to be steady, a leader, and a communicator for the defensive unit.
Opposite Haden will be 4th year player Cameron Sutton, who has finally earned a starting role after paying his dues. Taking over for Nelson, Sutton has flashed in spot duty defensively, but he has never been penciled in as the primary for an entire season. His film shows a penchant for making plays in the secondary with 3 interceptions and 4 forced fumbles in limited duty, but how that will translate to a full season, and hopefully, postseason, remains to be seen. Should he prosper in his new role, the Steelers will benefit, but if he is injured, or if he falters, the Steelers depth will be tested, and this is where things in the secondary can get sketchy.
Pierre vs. Layne
In terms of the slot corner/sub-package 3rd CB inside, it is believed, as asserted by Alex Kozora from SteelersDepot.com, that Sutton will kick inside and second year undrafted player James Pierre will move outside. I wrote about Pierre this week and the buzz he has generated during OTAs and Minicamp, and in examining all available evidence, it seems Pierre has jumped Justin Layne on the depth chart. Pierre earned snaps over Layne at the conclusion of last season, in addition to making contributions on special teams, and impressed the coaches enough to get a seat at the table heading into training camp. While still an unknown, it appears Pierre will be given every opportunity to show he is the 3rd outside CB up in the secondary.
Speaking of Layne, who drafted in the 3rd round in the 2019 draft, the time is now for him to show his value and to demonstrate his growth this training camp if he is to stick with the team. While it would be somewhat hasty of the Steelers were to cut ties with him post-training camp, Layne has to show more than he has his first two seasons, specifically the ability to not let receivers get behind him and to not lose track of the football while it is in the air. If Layne does not meet the threshold for improvement the Steelers are seeking, he could be cut, forcing the Steelers to bring in a free agent at the position or make a trade to bolster depth.
Versatility of Safeties in the Slot
Before diving into the back half of the CB roster, it is worth mentioning that Mike Prisuta, writer for Steelers.com, second year safety out of Maryland, Antoine Brooks, is being getting the first audition for the nickel CB spot, citing his blitzing ability as valuable and needed as to replace the pressure that the departed Mike Hilton provided. Additionally, we should note that safety Arthur Maulet, whom the Steelers signed back in May, could also provide depth and snaps at the nickel corner position, as he has experience in that role.
The depth behind the top 4 and the versatility from the safeties at nickel, is young, and unproven, but exciting and encouraging as July 21st approaches. DeMarkus Acy was recently signed by the Steelers as a free agent, and he was an undrafted rookie who originally signed with the 49ers. While not having any snaps in the NFL, his size is intriguing to the Steelers at 6’2, 195, and so the team has brought him to see what he can offer. The same applies to Stephen Denmark, former 7th round pick of the Chicago Bears in 2019, who signed a futures contract with the Steelers. Denmark is another large-bodied corner at 6’2, 217 who possibly could offer versatility at safety; however, like Acy, he has not stuck with a team, and his experience is miniscule.
In terms of rookie undrafted free agents, Shakur Brown and Mark Gilbert, both who we have profiled on the site, enter the cornerback competition to prove their value and to show they belong on the roster. While Brown has received the most attention due to scouts forecasting him as being selected in the draft and his production at Michigan State, Gilbert was productive in his time at Duke, but battled numerous injuries that have made it difficult for him to establish consistency in his college game.
As has been a trend in our depth chart analysis, the Steelers are set with their top CBs, yet their depth is unproven, and players will need to emerge in order for the team to not regress should their be an injury.