Examining Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Cornerback – Has Pittsburgh Done Enough?

It wasn’t long ago that the Steelers appeared to have things locked down at the cornerback position, so to speak. For a short spell, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson were good-to-great starters on the outside, while Mike Hilton was one of the best slot corners in the NFL.

  • But free agency, the constraints of the salary cap and age quickly changed that.

Mike Hilton was the first to leave, as he signed a deal with the Bengals at the onset of the 2021 free-agency period. Not long after that, Nelson was released due to the salary cap hell the Steelers found themselves in last spring.

Joe Haden was the only one left from that accomplished trio. But as of this writing, it appears that the Steelers have officially moved on from Haden, 33, who is an unrestricted free agent and has yet to sign with Pittsburgh or anyone else.

Justin Layne, Steelers vs Cardinals

Justin Layne’s early NFL action against the Cardinals in 2019. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Starters

Late last summer, right before the start of the regular season, the Steelers acquired Ahkello Witherspoon in a trade with the Seahawks. Witherspoon was a third-round pick by the 49ers in the 2017 NFL Draft. Witherspoon started 33 games during his four years in San Francisco before signing a one-year deal with Seattle last spring. Witherspoon was barely a factor for the Steelers for the majority of the 2021 campaign, but he started to earn starting reps down the stretch as a replacement for James Pierre and was arguably the team’s best cornerback at the end of the season.

Ahkello Witherspoon agreed to terms on a two-year deal with the Steelers in March and figures to be one of the starting outside corners in 2022.

Speaking of free agents and two-year contracts, the Steelers signed Levi Wallace, formerly of the Bills, to a two-year deal at the beginning of free agency. Wallace, an undrafted free agent in the 2018 NFL Draft, became a full-time starter in Buffalo by his second season and remained in that role through 2021. Playing opposite the highly-decorated Tre’Davious White, Wallace was a solid number two corner for the Bills and figures best suited for that same role in Pittsburgh.

Cam Sutton, a third-round pick out of Tennessee in the 2017 NFL Draft, spent his first four seasons serving many roles in the secondary, playing on the outside, in the slot and even at safety. But Sutton finally got his break and promotion in 2021, in addition to a new contract, and became a full-time starter. Again, Sutton is extremely versatile but perhaps seems destined to start in the slot in 2022, with the re-signing of Witherspoon and the addition of Wallace.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Backups

James Pierre, a 2020 undrafted free agent out of Florida Atlantic, struggled in 2021 after earning the most significant playing time of his short career.

After being selected in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Justin Layne has done very little to prove he even has what it takes to be a backup cornerback, let alone a starter.

Veteran Arthur Maulet, an undrafted free agent formerly of the Saints, Colts and Jets, made Pittsburgh’s roster last year and was a steady contributor in the slot.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

Rounding out the Steelers depth chart at cornerback are Linden Stephens and Isaiah Johnson.

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Cornerback

When talking about the Steelers’ three starters, the consensus seems to be that they are all solid number two caliber corners.

That’s a good number, but is that enough, even with a consistent and dominant pass rush? When you factor in the underwhelming depth behind those top 3, I would categorize the Steelers’ draft need at cornerback as Moderate-High

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Feed the Hand that Slaps You? Steelers Sign Levi Wallace to 2 Year Contract

How’s the saying go? Don’t slap the hand that feeds you? Well, maybe in Pittsburgh they’ll have to start saying, “Feed the hand that slaps you.” The Steelers have reportedly come to terms with Buffalo Bills cornerback Levi Wallace, who is expected to sign a 2 year 8 million dollar contract on Wednesday.

Levi Wallace entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Alabama, who made the Bills 2018 practice squad only to be activated and start the last 7 games of the season. He started all 16 games of the 2019 season, followed by 12 starts in 2020 and 17 starts in 2021.

That has given Mike Tomlin an excellent chance to see Levi Wallace up close, perhaps a little too close, as Wallace made interceptions in his first two outings against his future employer.

Levi Wallace, Steelers vs Bill, James Washington

Bills Levi Wallace picks off Ben Roethlisberger to seal a win. Photo Credit: Democrat and Chronicle

The first time came as Devlin Hodges tried to connect with James Washington deep late in the game, as Wallace’s pick sealed victory. A year later, Levi Wallace struck again late in the 4th quarter, picking off Ben Roethlisberger as he again tried to connect with Washington.

  • In 52 NFL starts, Levi Wallace has 6 interceptions, 30 passes defensed and 7 tackles for a loss.

At 4 million dollars a year the Steelers are getting Wallace at an extremely good contract.

Be that as it may, the fact that the Steelers are targeting cornerback as a priority signing also likely spells the end of Ahkello Witherspoon’s and/or Joe Haden’s time in Pittsburgh. The Steelers also have Cameron Sutton, James Pierre and Justin Layne under contract at cornerback.

Steelers Get 4th Round Compensatory Selection

The Steelers were also informed by the NFL that they would be getting a 4th round compensatory selection. Last spring the hope was that given the loss of Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton, the Steelers might get either a third round selection or perhaps multiple selections.

  • However, injuries to Bud Dupree and the need to play Joe Haeg altered that calculation.

The Steelers have the first 4th round compensatory pick, and now have a pick in each round, save for the 5th round.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Steelers Report Card for Win over Browns: Sad to See a Star Student Graduate Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teary teacher who is sad to see his start student soon begin his “Life’s Work,” here is the Steelers Report Card for Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger in command in his Heinz Field finale. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Quarterback
In his final outing at Heinz Field, Ben Roethlisberger went 24 for 46 for 123 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Ben didn’t get a lot of help from his receivers, but this game is a solid signal that it is indeed time for him to hang it up. Grade: B-

Running Backs
Najee Harris was on fire rushing for 188 yards including a 37 yard scamper that iced the game. His hustle was evident from the word go to the last snap. Big Ben is leaving the offense in good hands. Benny Snell had one carry for 2 yards and Derek Watt converted a fourth and one. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth returned and caught 5 passes on six targets while Zach Gentry was targeted once for no catches. The run blocking was solid, which they helped with. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
Diontate Johnson had 8 catches for… 31 yards and a touchdown. Chase Claypool had 3 for 17 and was more notable for the catches he didn’t make (although there was simply some good DB work.) Ray-Ray McCloud had 4 catches for 35 yards, leading the team in receiving yardage. James Washington had one target an no catches. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
The Steelers enjoyed their best run blocking of the season by far. Holes opened and piles fell forward for the first time since the leaves started falling in October. Pass blocking was solid, but Ben did take two sacks. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was his usual lights out self, batting away two passes and sacking Baker Mayfield on third down. Isaiahh Loudermilk batted away a pass. The line did a good job in containing the run. Grade: B

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Najee Harris en route to 188 yards. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

Linebackers
T.J. Watt strengthened his stake to be league MVP with 2 passes defensed, 3 tackles for losses, 4 sacks and 5 QB hits. Alex Highsmith added 2 sacks and made a key stop for a loss. Robert Spillane led the team in tackles. Grade: A

Secondary
Not a lot of fireworks here, but Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden each defensed a pass, as did Tre Norwood who also came up with an interception. The Steelers registered 9 sacks and that only happens if the coverage was good. Grade: A

Special Teams
Chris Boswell was 4 for 4 on field goals, including a 48 and a 50 yarder. Corliss Waitman did an excellent job punting. Ray-Ray McCloud was OK as a returner, although he did fumble one which he recovered. Kick coverage was OK, but Justin Layne’s two penalties were negatives. Grade: B

Coaching
The Steelers offense was hardly a juggernaut, but Matt Canada got the running game going and because of that the short passing game was effective.

Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin embrace. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers authored a dominant defensive performance, the late touchdown notwithstanding. While Kevin Stefanski decision to de-emphasize the run AND put the game in an injured Baker Mayfield’s hands with a hapless rookie left to tangle with T.J. Watt is a head scratcher, the Steelers defense took advantage.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were singularly focused throughout the night from start to finish. The team wanted to win and played with the will to win. Yes, this was fueled by the emotion of it being Ben Roethlisberger’s last game in Pittsburgh, but that singular focus is a product of the locker room culture Mike Tomlin has cultivated. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
COVID and other injuries robbed the Steelers of their starting inside linebackers and area where the team was already weak. But Marcus Allen and Ulysees Gilbert III stepped up to do an effective job in the middle and for that they win the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win over the Browns in Ben Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field.

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Steelers 2021 Preview: Roethlisberger’s Last Ride to be a Rough One?

The wait will soon end.

Its been 245 days since the Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns and a lot has happened since then. Some of it completely predictable, some of it surprising:

Through it all, Kevin Colbert managed once again to perform the salary cap equivalent of the Loaves and the Fishes. Thanks to COVID-19 the Steelers were facing their worst salary cap situation since 2012 and 2013, yet Colbert managed to put together a roster on paper that is far stronger than anyone had a right to expect on the lonely January night when Roethlisberger and Pouncey commiserated on the sidelines.

But the time for measuring roster moves on paper has ended and the time for judgement rendered on the gridiron is about to begin.

So what can we expect?

J.J. Watt, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Texans

J.J. Watt pressures Ben Roethlisberger in 2014. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today

Roethlisberger’s Final Ride Likely a Rough One

Times like these force oneself to channel their inner Jesse Ventura and “Call it as I see it McMahon.” And the truth is that if this is Ben Roethlisberger’s last ride, it looks to be a rough one.

  • That’s not the call I want to make, but the one my eyes tell me I have to make.

Why?

First let’s consider what caused the Steeler once promising 2020 season to end in an unmitigated disaster:

  • Ben Roethlisberger inability to throw the long ball caught up with him.
  • The running game disappeared
  • Injuries ravaged the defense, neutering a dominant group

Word is that Ben Roethlisberger has recovered his long ball, but given his limited action in preseason we’ll simply have to wait to see if that comes true. The Steelers dumped Randy Fichtner and replaced him with Matt Canada, which should help. As for the defense and injuries, well let’s get to that.

When salary cap Armageddon loomed, the chief concerns for the Steelers were:

Can they preserve their pass rush?
Can they field a competitive secondary?
Can they rebuild the offensive line?

Let’s see where the Steelers stand on the eve of the 2021 season.

Pass Rush

So the Steelers lost Bud Dupree, but still have Alex Highsmith, resigned T.J. Watt and added Melvin Ingram. So, on paper that’s perhaps a net positive. However, Stephon Tuitt, who accounted for 11 sacks is beginning the season on injured reserve. And Tyson Alualu is also injured.

The Steelers should field a strong pass rush this year, but its doubtful they can field a better one.

Secondary

After years of being a liability, the Steelers secondary was finally a strength during the 2019 and 2020. Yet going into the 2021 off season, everyone expected a salary cap casualty to come out of the defensive backfield.

  • But few expected that casualty to be Steven Nelson instead of Joe Haden.

The Steelers plan was to go with Haden, Cameron Sutton, and James Pierre with Joe Haden and Antoine Brooks pushing as the 4th corner. Justin Layne got arrested and Brook got hurt. The Steelers sallied on during preseason, mixing and matching various configurations of their cornerbacks. Their final decision? They traded yet another draft pick for Ahkello Witherspoon.

Offensive Line

Let’s say this. No one can accuse the Steelers of standing pat on the offensive line. When the Steelers open against the Bills, Kelvin Dotson will be the only player working in the same place he was last season against the Giants.

  • But does change equal improvement?

That’s the bigger question. What isn’t a question is that this is another situation that did not evolve according to plan. Mike Tomlin’s idea was to start is experienced tackles Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor on the right and left sides. But Banner got hurt and left tackle proved to be too much for Okorafor.

Dan Moore’s performance has elicited nothing but positive commentary since he was drafted in the third round, but rookies starting a left tackle in the NFL are rare.

As it stands, on opening day the Steelers will start 2 rookies on offensive line, one sophomore who literally looks like a “rising sophomore,” a veteran who was unemployed in late June and veteran who is back at right tackle after not being able to cut it on the left side.

It might work. But would you bet your 401(k) balance on it?

Wimp Out Disclaimer

After writing 753 of gloom and doom its now time for the “Wimp Out Disclaimer.”

The red and yellow flag flying above the Steelers offensive line, secondary and pass rush are real but so has Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s reaction to them. When it became clear that Banner’s injury issues weren’t going away and Okorafor struggled, the Steelers started working Dan Moore into the line up.

The first thought here was that Mike Tomlin was planning to use Moore the way he used Kelvin Beachum in 2013, roating him in on both sides to push both starters. But Tomlin didn’t do that. He made the change immediately.

You can see a similar pattern elsewhere, from signing Melvin Ingram, to trading for Joe Schobert, to trading for Witherspoon.

The fact that the Steelers brass felt they needed to make these moves is worrisome, but their willingness to act decisively is encouraging.

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5 Non-Offensive Line Questions Steelers Must Answer @ Training Camp 2021

The Pittsburgh Steelers begin training camp today as players have begun working out with their first padded practices coming in a week.

Again, as they did a year ago, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Steelers will not be able to hold training camp at St. Vincents, instead splitting activities between their facility on the South Side and Heinz Field.

  • Unless you’ve been under a rock, the offensive line is the main story line this summer.

With the retirement of Maurkice Pouncey and the departure of David DeCastro, the Steelers will feature an almost completely re-made offensive line. While the offensive line was a liability last season, at least in the running game, cohesion is critical there and any hopes for better season lie with an improve offensive line.

But the development of the offensive line, while critical, is hardly the only pressing issue the Pittsburgh must resolve. Here are 5 others.

Devin Bush,

Steelers Devin Bush on the fields of St. Vincents 2 years ago. Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo! Sports

1. Who Will Provide Depth at Inside Linebacker?

The news that Devin Bush is back and ready to practice was tempered by the surprise retirement of Vince Williams. The Steelers cut Williams and then welcomed him back on a smaller contract.

  • That move seemed to give the Steelers needed depth on the inside.

Robert Spillane did well enough to earn a starting slot along side Devin Bush, and Williams seemed to be the perfect veteran backup. Instead, he will start “Life’s Work.”

That leaves converted safety Marcus Allen, veteran journeyman Miles Killebrew, 4th round pick Buddy Johnson and Ulysees Gilbert (remember him?) as the primary contenders to replace him. Killebrew is the immediate favorite.

But the Steelers contingency plans to shore up the center of their defense just got more complicated.

2. Can Pittsburgh Escape a Tight Spot @ Tight End?

With Eric Ebron the Steelers are in a “What you see is what you get” position. Ebron is an asset in the Red Zone. He can be an effective receiver – when he catches the ball. As for blocking? Well you or I might be able to do a better job. OR at least make more effort.

With a shaky offensive line, the Steelers need a presence at tight end that can block effectively. They also need someone who can catch underneath passes once wide receivers have stretched the field.

The Steelers drafted Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth in the 2nd round and on paper he should meet that need. Kevin Radar showed himself to be a solid blocker in limited action during 2020. Zach Gentry is at the point in his NFL career where he needs to start replacing potential with production.

3. Can the Steelers Square Their Depth Chart at Cornerback?

In 2020 fielding a competitive defense means fielding 3 starting caliber cornerbacks. The Steelers said good bye to two starters this off season. Cam Sutton has been an under the radar type player for the Steelers for the last two, if not three seasons.

  • The Steelers are betting that he can make the next step.

It says here that the Steelers bet will likely payoff. What about the third and 4th cornerback slots? The Steelers brought in James Pierre last season and thought enough of him to move him ahead of Justin Layne for the playoffs. The decision to part ways with Steven Nelson was as much a vote of confidence in Pierre as it was anything else.

As for Justin Layne, he appears to have escaped legal trouble for his latest off the field incident, but one wonders if he can find the maturity he needs if he hasn’t already. If that’s the case then the Steelers need someone to emerge from the tangle of bodies below this group, be it Shakur Brown, DeMarkus Acy or Stephen Denmark.

4. Who Can Emerge as Defensive Lineman Number 4?

Officially the Steelers remain a 3-4 team, but each season sees the Steelers play in their base defense less and less. Hence, Cam Heyward is listed as a defensive tackle, even though he typically has a linebacker to his left and a defensive lineman to his right.

  • The Steelers caught a break when they got Tyson Alualu back.

But Alualu is 34. Ideally Carlos Davis, Isaiah Buggs, Henry Mondeaux or even rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk, would supplant him as the starter and allow Alualu to become the 4th man in Karl Dunbar’s rotation.

Regardless, the Steelers need to find a 4th man this summer.

5. Who Will Be QB Number 3?

Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph

Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph on the sidelines at Heinz Field in 2019. Photo Credit: AP via

IF the Steelers are to have ANY chance of making a run at a Super Bowl this season, Ben Roethlisberger quite simply must get more comfortable with the “bionics” of his new arm and thereby improve on his deep and intermediate passes.

  • It really is that simple.

Armed with a new contract, Mason Rudolph will be the Steelers backup quarterback this season. The big question this summer is whether Dwayne Haskins and prove he was worth the flyer the Steelers took on him or whether he becomes a footnote in Steelers history.

This is important, because of Haskins can show himself to be worthy of a roster spot, then he has the physical tools to challenge Mason Rudolph next summer (regardless of whether Roethlisberger retires.)

Haskins was just in the news. Again. At this point there’s nothing to suggest Haskins did anything illegal, but he’s making headlines for the wrong reasons. Again. Something tells me Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are happy they hedged their bets here.

 

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Steelers Sign Melvin Ingram, Shoring Up Depth at Outside Linebacker

On the eve of training camp the Steelers moved to shore up a major weakness on their depth chart by signing free agent outside linebacker Melvin Ingram.

  • The Steelers signed Ingram to a 1 year deal for an as yet to be disclosed figure.

Coming out of South Carolina, the San Diego Chargers drafted Melvin Ingram with the 18th pick in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. The Chargers sent Ingram’s name to the podium six picks before the Steelers selected David DeCastro, and ironically it is DeCastro’s departure that paved the way for the signing.

At outside linebacker the Steelers have T.J. Watt, whom they’re looking to lock down to a long term deal, and 2nd year player Alex Highsmith. During free agency Pittsburgh lost Bud Dupree and Olasunkanmi Adeniyi leaving them with journey man Cassius Marsh and 6th round draft pick Quincy Roche.

Melvin Ingram, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Chargers

Melvin Ingram tackles Le’Veon Bell in 2015. Photo Credit: Donald Miralle, Getty Images, via Zimbo

Who is Melvin Ingram?

Melvin Ingram is a 3 time Pro Bowler and has played his entire career for the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers. During that time he has started 96 games and participated in 113 games. His resume includes two 10.5 sack seasons and has made a total of 49 sacks in his career.

He has also logged 3 interceptions forced 14 fumbles and made 70 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Injuries limited Ingram in his 2nd and 3rd years in the league, but then he remained relatively healthy starting 16 games for 4 straight seasons, until missing 3 games in 2019.

A knee injury landed Ingram on the injured reserve list twice in 2020 and it was his least productive of his career.

Like Trai Turner, the guard the Steelers signed to replace David DeCastro, Ingram was looking for a job for a reason. However, he gives the Steelers experienced depth where they need it the most.

Defensive Back Next? Doubtful

If outside linebacker was unquestionably the Steelers thinnest slot of the depth chart, cornerback was second. The Steelers have Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton, but after that they’re limited to James Pierre and Justin Layne.

While the Steelers could use a boost of either quantity or quality at cornerback, the only way they’re likely to get one is via the waiver wire.

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NFL Draft 2021: Is Cornerback Back as a Steelers Need?

Steel Curtain Rising has been doing the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix for the better part of the last decade.

  • A year ago something new, and dare we say exciting, happened.

In previous years, cornerback would invariably stand out as a top Steelers need. But last year was different. Last year we went as far as to rate Pittsburgh’s need at cornerback as Low-Moderate. Can history repeat itself in 2021? Time to find out.

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception, Steelers vs Bills

Cam Sutton intercepts Josh Allen. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2021 NFL Draft: The Starters

The Steelers may not draft cornerbacks very well (see Artie Burns.) Nor can they keep them healthy (see Senquez Golson, and Cortez Allen after a fashion.) Nor do they seem to have a knack for trading for them (See Brandon Boykin and/or Justin Gilbert.

  • But they do seem to transform other team’s trash into Pittsburgh’s treasure.

Such is the case with Joe Haden, whom the Steelers swooped up after Cleveland Browns cut in him 2017. Pittsburgh hasn’t looked back since, as Joe Haden started 56 games, hauled in 10 interceptions (or 3 fewer than Ike Taylor’s career total), taken home a pick six, and batted away 48 passes.

Joe Haden will be 32 next year and may be slowing a step, but the Steelers made clear how much they valued him when they opted to cut Steven Nelson who started alongside him.

In his place, Pittsburgh will start Cam Sutton. Cam Sutton was the Steelers 3rd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft who, as fate would have it, saw his first action in the 2017 road game against Cincinnati where Ryan Shazier’s career ended. Since the Sutton had developed slowly, but steadily.

He’s logged 3 interceptions during his first four years, and started 6 games in 2020 and his forced fumble was one of the lone bright spots in a remarkably ugly loss to the Bills.

  • In today’s NFL the slot corner is essentially a starter.

The Steelers don’t have one as Mike Hilton signed with the Bengals as a free agent after manning the positon for 4 years.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2021 NFL Draft: The Backups

One of the Steelers two backups at cornerback will occupy the role of the slot corner. That player will be expected to slide over to the edge while Cameron Sutton moves over to the slot on third down just as Deshea Townsend did.

James Pierre made the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent during 2020 training camp, and appeared in all 16 games, including 12% of the defensive snaps in the Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns.

  • James Pierre’s playing time came at the expense of Justin Layne.

Justin Layne was the Steelers 3rd round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, who was drafted on “measurable” as opposed to pedigree. Layne began at wide receiver and transitioned over to cornerback late during his time with the Michigan State Spartans.

He appeared in 10 games as a rookie and all 16 games during the regular season. But tellingly, the coaches after getting 26% of the defensive snaps in the regular season road loss to the Browns, coaches looked to Pierre over Layne for the playoffs. Justin Layne was of course arrested last week.

The Steelers also have free agent Trevor Williams, a five year veteran with 27 starts and 41 games under his belt from his time with the Chargers, Cardinals and most recently the Eagles. The Steelers also have first year veteran Stephen Denmark on their roster.

Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Cornerback

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftWhen the news broke of Justin Layne’s legal troubles, my reaction was, “Better now than after the draft.” Over at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Tim Benz opined that Layne’s judicial woes probably won’t change the Steelers plans.

  • Benz may be right.

With Trever Williams the Steelers brought in some experience to supplement the youthful potential they have at cornerback, which is a wise move. But right now the Steelers have an aging quality corner on one side and a probably up-and-comer on the other side with little behind them.

Which is to say the Steelers need depth and/or a possible future starter, so their need at cornerback heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate-High.

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Steelers Justin Layne Arrested – Better Today than After the Draft

Sometimes it is best to save the best for the last.

Thus far, between Tony Defeo and myself, our Steelers draft needs analysis has each spot on the depth chart save for outside linebacker and cornerback. The latter article just got more interesting as news broke that Steelers reserve cornerback Justin Layne was arrested on traffic violations and weapons charges.

According to Joe Rutter and Megan Guza of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Justin Layne is being charged with “with driving with a suspended license, speeding, and transporting a loaded firearm, which is a fourth-degree felony.”

On Twitter, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo reports that Layne was pulled over for “…doing 89 mph in a 50 mph zone.” Marijuana and marijuana odor was also observed.

Justin Layne, Steelers vs Cardinals

Justin Layne’s early NFL action against the Cardinals in 2019. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

The Steelers, per policy, issued a statement indicating they are aware of the situation but will not make further comment.

So if they won’t, then I will:

  • Regardless of what happens in the courts with Justin Layne, he has failed the idiot test.

Layne apparently already has a warrant out for another outstanding traffic violation. Although he is not yet facing any drug related charges, someone in his car was using marijuana, opening himself up to suspicion for driving with a controlled substance. And he has a loaded fire arm in the car.

  • Right away those are three separate things that could bring Layne into trouble with the law.

But truthfully, the odds are slim that you or I would ever know about any of the above had Justin Layne been smart enough to do one thing:  Drive the speed limit.

People who drive the speed limit and obey other traffic laws still end up getting pulled over, and this happens to African American men far too often. But driving 40 miles an hour is a surefire way to catch the attention of a police officer.

Ergo, driving 40 miles above the speed limit is something that should be avoided if you’ve got an outstanding violation and/or are illegally transporting a weapon. That concept is apparently lost on Justin Layne.

Better This Happen Today, as Opposed to Ten Days from Now

What happens next is anyone’s guess. It could be that Justin Layne innocent of the charges. Even if the evidence is solid, one would have to assume that Justin Layne can afford good enough legal representation to keep him out of jail, assuming jail time is a possibility should he be convicted of the charges.

  • But he could still face discipline from the NFL and/or the Steelers.

Either way, the chances of the Steelers taking a cornerback earlier than expected in the 2021 NFL Draft just got better. Our full analysis will come later, but Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson‘s departures have thinned the Steelers depth at cornerback to Justin Layne and  James Pierre.

  • The urgency of adding someone else into the mix just got greater.

Better that Justin Layne fail the “Idiot Test” one week before the NFL draft as opposed to a week after.

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Fretting about Free Agency? The NFL Draft is the Steelers Christmas Tree, Free Agents are Just Stocking Stuffers

If you’re a Steelers fan, you’re likely not all that comfortable with their activity during the first two weeks of the NFL’s unrestricted free-agency period.

But you should have known they weren’t going to do much, right? The salary-cap problems were well-documented, and, besides, the Steelers’ history of making free-agent splashes should have been another clue.

Perhaps the re-signing of Cam Sutton and the surprise re-signings of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Tyson Alualu weren’t enough. Also, the outside signings of free agents such as Joe Haeg and Miles Killebrew probably didn’t move the needle on your excitement meter.

  • Do you know what always moves the excitement needle for Steelers fans?

The annual NFL Draft. I mean, my goodness, the talk about the popular event — an event whose television ratings always eclipse those of the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final — begins the second the Steelers’ season comes to an end and doesn’t stop until well-after their final pick is announced on Day 3 of draft weekend.

There are millions of NFL fans who probably love the draft more than they do an actual football game. I don’t, but I can certainly appreciate the sentiment. Why? Because the draft is the life-blood of the National Football League. It’s actually the life-blood of every professional sports league.

Justin Layne, Steelers vs Cardinals

Justin Layne’s early NFL action against the Cardinals in 2019. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

The Steelers and the NFL Draft

Every viable prospect is poked, prodded and interviewed countless times in the weeks and months leading up to the draft. There are few secrets by the time the annual event rolls around every April.

Teams are looking for players to help them win now and in the future. They’re searching for prospects that will lead them to the Promised Land–better known as the Super Bowl.

My point is, we dissect every single Steelers’ draft choice — and even the undrafted free agents — once they arrive and speculate on what they can do for the team now and in the future. Yet, the second unrestricted free agency rolls around every March, we forget about many of those players and want Pittsburgh to go shopping for shiny new toys.

Take cornerback Justin Layne, for example. The Steelers made Justin Layne a third-round draft choice out of Michigan State just two years ago. People were excited about him. Many were of the opinion that he was a great value pick and could wind up being a steal. When a player is selected in the third round, I think it’s reasonable to expect him to at least be competing for a starting job by his third season.

Here we are in 2021, and Layne is heading into his third season. I was as disappointed by the release of Steven Nelson as anyone. The Steelers obviously did this to save money, sure, but maybe Pittsburgh also cut Nelson knowing that Layne was ready to make the jump from backup to starting corner.

Another example is Chukwuma Okorafor, an offensive tackle that was selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Okorafor has already started a number of games–including 15 last year. Heading into his fourth season, perhaps Pittsburgh is confident that he can be the long-term answer at either left or right tackle.

We really don’t know how the Steelers feel about players like Layne and Okorafor, but we might get our answer by how they address both corner and offensive tackle during the early rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft.

As for Alex Highsmith, the outside linebacker taken in the third round last year, we knew right away that the former Charlotte walk-on was selected to be the heir apparent to Bud Dupree, who had designs on making a ton of money as an unrestricted free agent–he did.

After a promising rookie season, Highsmith will now get that chance in 2021. What’s wrong with that plan? What’s wrong with promoting Layne if he’s ready?

This is what the draft is for. Heck, people are tracking the Pro Day visits of head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert as if they’re foreign spies.

There’s obviously a lot of time and money that goes into the NFL and these prospects. If you can hit on a class or two, it allows you to remain competitive for years.

Take the Steelers 2017 Draft class, for example. I think T.J. Watt‘s career speaks for itself. You can argue about many aspects of Smith-Schuster’s game and non-football exploits, but you can’t say that he hasn’t been a productive NFL receiver. As for Sutton, a third-round pick from Tennessee, he may wind up being more than just the starting slot corner; he may be the number two corner.

The Steelers drafts of 2008 and 2009 produced very little in terms of long-term production (at least for the Steelers), and by the time those Super Bowl veterans from the 2000s were ready to get on with their life’s work, the cupboard was pretty bare; the Steelers didn’t miss the playoffs in both 2012 and 2013 by accident.

In conclusion, the Steelers didn’t do a whole lot in free agency, but maybe that’s because they believe in their recent draft choices.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

 

 

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Mike Hilton Is a Steelers Success Story, But This Free Agent Will Find Fortune Elsewhere

Undrafted Rookie Free Agents have been the secret to Kevin Colbert’s success. OK, his record of only wiffing on two first round draft picks (Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns) since returning to Pittsburgh has had a big role in his success.

  • But Kevin Colbert’s ability to mine the NFL’s scrap heap for diamonds is unprecedented.

Just look at Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. Super Bowl XL featured the longest run from scrimmage in Super Bowl history, authored by Willie Parker. Super Bowl XLIII featured the longest return in Super Bowl history, authored by James Harrison. Both men were undrafted rookie free agents that Kevin Colbert spotted but the rest of the NFL overlooked.

  • Strictly speaking Mike Hilton wasn’t an undrafted rookie free agent when he arrived in Pittsburgh.

But he fits the prototype pretty well, has started for 4 straight seasons making himself as an impact player and he’s now a free agent. Will he stay in Pittsburgh long enough to make a run at a ring? Let’s find out.

T.J. Watt, Mike Hilton, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Colts

T.J. Watt strip sacks Philip Rivers and Mike Hilton is there. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of Mike Hilton’s Steelers Career

Jacksonville signed then cut Mike Hilton as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2016. The Patriots swooped in and added him to their practice squad, but Hilton’s stay in Beantown lasted all of one week. Mike Hilton held a pink slip in his hand for most of the rest of the season, until Pittsburgh signed him to the practice squad in December 2016.

Hilton was the St. Vincents sensation during the summer of 2017, a feat which landed him both a roster spot and a gig as the Steelers starting slot corner. As a rookie Mike Hilton made two interceptions, knocked away six passes, while flying in under the radar for four quarterback sacks.

The sack sagged a bit in 2018 and 2019, but Hilton’s consistent play has continued for a Steelers secondary that has gone from a team weakness to a strength with him a part of the lineup. In 2020, Mike Hilton posted what might have been his best season, pulling down 3 interceptions, sacking opposing quarterback 3 times and registering 8 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

And he did this while splitting time with Cameron Sutton.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mike Hilton in 2021

NFL teams must have 3 competent cornerbacks. A starter-caliber nickle back is no longer a “Nice to have.” Mike Hilton has fulfilled that role for 4 years, and has delivered excellence to the position. He’s been durable playing in 59 games in four years, and at age 27 still has many years of his prime ahead of him.

  • Mike Hilton has an uncanny an ability to be around the ball

You can see it in his high sack total and impressive tackles for loss numbers, you can also see it in the photo above, T.J. Watt is the one making the strip-sack of Philip Rivers, but Hilton is right there in the frame.

Really, the only question is why haven’t the Steelers already locked Mike Hilton up to a long term contract?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mike Hilton in 2021

Mike Hilton had a great year in 2020, and he did it while splitting time with Cam Sutton.

There’s a reason for that, and that’s because Cam Sutton is a better coverage cornerback than Mike Hilton is. Cam Sutton might not be as good at pressuring the passer as Mike Hilton nor can he create mischief behind the line of scrimmage, but Sutton can do something that Mike Hilton hasn’t done and probably never will:

  • Move outside when needed.

Joe Haden will be 32 next season. If there’s one position where players tend to “get old fast” in the NFL, it is at cornerback. All signs indicate that Joe Haden will be back in 2021, but then what? Justin Layne certainly hasn’t shown he’s the answer there. Cam Sutton has shown that he might be.

The Steelers quite simply cannot sign both Cam Sutton AND Mike Hilton, and given a choice between the two, they should opt for Sutton.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mike Hilton in 2021

Mike Hilton has been a tremendous player for the Steelers and is yet another feather in Kevin Colbert’s cap. Perhaps under a normal year, the Steelers could afford to bring him back and Cam Sutton.

There’s no way they can sign both Cam Sutton and Mike Hilton and they probably won’t even try. Expect Mike Hilton to find his fortune outside of Pittsburgh.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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