Does anyone still remember Justin Layne?
The Michigan State cornerback was generally considered to be the biggest steal of the Steelers’ 2019 draft class at the time. After a tough showing in his first NFL action, a preseason matchup versus Chris Godwin, Layne faded into the background. He didn't play any defensive snaps in the regular season and even though he contributed admirably on special teams, he remains one of the least talked about players on the Steelers roster.
But could that be a good thing?
As a third-round rookie, Layne was immediately placed at the bottom of the cornerback depth chart behind one of the league’s best corner duos in Steve Nelson and Joe Haden. Quality slot corners and depth pieces Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton were ahead of Layne, as well as 2016 first-round bust Artie Burns.
Nelson, Haden, Hilton, and Sutton all had excellent seasons in 2019, and unless Layne could have managed to show Pro-Bowl ability his rookie season, there were no reasons or expectations for him to overtake the starting four. Layne was able to take a year to learn behind some of the league’s best, not undertake the trial-by-fire many rookie corners face their first year in the NFL.
Layne was a raw prospect coming out of college as a converted wide receiver, and needed a year or two to convert his athletic profile to fit the skill set of an NFL defensive back. Being able to sit behind some savvy veterans in his first year was the best thing that could have happened to him, and could have an excellent impact in his development.
Artie Burns wasn’t as lucky.
Burns was thrown into the fire as a rookie in 2016 and seemingly regressed every year after that. Left as the only corner Layne could conceivably overtake in 2019, Burns tried to hold onto a spot as a gunner on special teams, but was replaced by Layne near mid season when Burns missed time due to injury.
Layne shouldn’t be stopping there in 2020, however, as he factors into the Steelers’ future in a much bigger role than special teams.
Joe Haden is nearing the end of his career as a starting boundary corner, and contract situations make it likely only one of Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton will be with the team next year. As a result, Layne has every chance to step into a starting role in the Steelers’ secondary sometime soon.
If Justin Layne can slide in across from Steve Nelson sometime in the future as an outside corner, the Steelers will be able to keep their secondary strong. With Cam Sutton or Mike Hilton manning the slot, and a young, talented safety tandem in Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds providing a backstop, the team’s defensive backfield should remain as strong as ever.
If Layne can prove to be a starting-caliber player, the Steelers won’t have to worry as much about Haden’s inevitable retirement in the next few seasons. However, the Steelers have notoriously struggled with developing defensive backs, as all of their current stars at the position (Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steve Nelson, and Joe Haden) are transplants from other teams.
Pittsburgh has a relatively new defensive backfield coaching staff in Teryl Austin and Tom Bradley, who helped form a fearsome secondary last year despite the team’s poor history in doing so. Austin made a big impact, helping Steelers’ draft picks like Terrell Edmunds and Cam Sutton progress into starting-caliber players. Fitzpatrick and Nelson also improved their games during their inaugural season in the black and gold, and it’s not a stretch to think that the coaching staff and defensive scheme had a hand in that transformation.
With the Steelers’ ability to draft and develop defensive backs looking to be on the rise, there is hope for Justin Layne’s future as a starter. He has all of the physical tools and size to succeed, but needs to finish polishing his coverage ability if he wants to make an impact in 2020 and beyond.
It’s not all about Layne, however. If the team can succeed in turning the Michigan State product into a viable starter, it could be indicative of their ability to build a new core of defensive backs in the future.
Great things don’t last forever, but if Layne can live up to his potential, the Steelers’ secondary can continue to be great long after some of their veteran stars retire.