Rookie Expectations: Justin Layne
The Pittsburgh Steelers clearly noted that the secondary was a part of their issues in 2018, as they went out and signed a veteran cornerback in Steven Nelson but then proceeded to draft Justin Layne in round three. The writing on the wall is clear for Artie Burns, who was benched last season before seeing his fifth-year option declined this offseason.
Adding two potential starters at cornerback on top of that is the icing on the cake for Burns, who may get cut this offseason. Still, while Layne has the upside to be a future starter, there is a reason he fell into round three as well. The Steelers do not have to look at Layne as a starter, and they likely do not want to start him next season, if they do not have to.
Layne has a lot of upside, with his size, length, speed, and ball skills. However, he is a former wide receiver with a little over two seasons at corner. His receiver skills can show in his ceiling as a long-armed ball hawk, but he is inconsistent in his press technique and can be left open and exposed over the middle of the field.
Will Justin Layne only play outside?
Layne has only played on the boundary at Michigan State, although he has played both sides. Still, given his inconsistencies over the middle of the field, he is a player who is going to hang on the outside right now. Terryl Austin mentioned that he is an outside cornerback only in his post-draft press conference.
Right now, I think I see him more as an outside guy to start with. I think that in terms of learning and getting him ready, that’ll be something that I’ll do. And then we’ll see what type of mental aptitude he has to handle everything that we do before we start talking about moving him inside.
This is what makes Steven Nelson an interesting piece. While he has outside starter experience, he also can shift into the slot. If Layne is ahead of expectations, or if Mike Hilton gets injured they can push Nelson into the slot and add Layne into the mix. The versatility of Nelson gives the Steelers flexibility in their development of Layne that they did not have in previous seasons.
Will Justin Layne start?
A best-case scenario for Layne would be a season on an NFL sideline, with an NFL training camp and preseason to be exposed to the increase in speed. Joe Haden is a great player for Layne to learn from because Haden is a seasoned veteran who is technically sound but is also a player who is confident in his standing on the roster and is more concerned with making Layne better than staving off Layne for a starting job.
This is something that the Steelers would have liked to do with Artie Burns and tried to do, although it did not work. Burns was arguably rawer than Layne but the depth on the team was so thin that William Gay was the leader of the group, and second-round rookie Sean Davis was forced to play out of position in the slot to start his career. The team tried a variety of options and even traded for Justin Gilbert before Burns saw nine starts to close his rookie year.
Since then, they added the better Cleveland Browns cornerback and have a slot option in Hilton. They also signed Nelson from Kansas City, who at the very worst should be able to hold down starter snaps better than Ross Cockrell, and William Gay. This year they even have Cameron Sutton, who can be used a swiss army knife with inside-outside capabilities, including dime and safety snaps.
Was Justin Layne a luxury pick?
Absolutely not. This has become an NFL where no team can have too many cornerbacks. Steven Nelson is nice as a replacement level player, Joe Haden has missed time in both seasons with Pittsburgh, and for as capable as Sutton is, there is a reason he is a backup at every spot and not a starter. While they have more depth than 2016, Layne could still see the field earlier than they wanted, just like their rookie in 2016.
If this becomes a redshirt season for Layne, that would only mean that Haden is healthy, Hilton is holding down the slot, and Nelson was a better signing than they had thought. It is not a bad thing for Layne to spend a season in the facilities and practicing with veterans before jumping onto the field.
Still, there are plenty of paths for him to get on the field as a rookie as well. However, with the depth of the roster and his development track, the team may be planning to ease him in, and a rookie year with limited snaps could be expected.