PITTSBURGH — The Steelers had a significant turnover at the cornerback position this offseason, with veteran starter Steven Nelson released to alleviate a salary cap crunch, starting Nickel corner Mike Hilton off to Cincinnati on a big-money free agent deal, and Dime corner Cam Sutton re-signed with the idea of being a starter.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin confirmed on Monday that if he were to put a depth chart together for his team right now that Sutton would be a starter along with Joe Haden, though he was adamant to clarify that April depth charts “mean nothing.” But with that said, Sutton was easily identified as the starting boundary corner. The situation beyond him on the depth chart is less clear.
Rookie undrafted free agent James Pierre appeared to bypass 2019 third-round pick Justin Layne for playing time as the season went on, and Tomlin confirmed that Pierre finished the season ahead of Layne on the depth chart — presumably making him the starting Nickel corner at the moment.
“We’ve followed the growth and development of young players on the practice field over the course of the season, and as the season wore on, we just got more comfortable with what we were seeing from Pierre,” Tomlin said. “Now, is it a rise in his level of play? Is it a decline in Layne’s level of play? You know, I really can’t speak to that. There was a feeling that he was moving in the right direction, and that’s why we made the decisions that we made.”
Tomlin didn’t address Layne’s arrest for felony firearm possession last week, but seemed to suggest that the Michigan State alum still has a chance to work his way into a larger role for the team.
“In terms of what that means for 2021, we will see. How 2020 ended does not define how 2021 is going to work out or even begin for that matter. They’re both capable young players. We’ve got other capable young players. We intend to potentially add to that, so we’ll see where the roads lead us.”
The other corners on the Steelers roster are veteran Trevor Williams and former Bears draft pick Stephen Denmark. Denmark is a project from Division II Valdosta State and Williams has been cut (five times) more than he’s played (four times) since 2019.
While Nelson remains unemployed and there are a few others cornerbacks remaining in the free agent market, the Steelers are overwhelmingly likely to address the position in the draft, where general manager Kevin Colbert sees a deep class
“The corners are deep,” Colbert said. “As Coach mentioned, James Pierre came on and did a nice job for us last year. Justin Layne had done some good things on the field. They’re both young, ascending players. Can we add to that spot? Absolutely.”