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The Steelers may have found this year's James Pierre in Shakur Brown

The undrafted defensive back could be a player who has a shot at making the 53-man roster in 2021.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 undrafted free agent signings for the Steelers seemed as if it would be yet another weak year of signings for the team. However, others here at BTSC told me to keep an eye on this guy named James Pierre, a player who had not impressed me during the pre-draft process. I had snubbed him from my top 300 rankings and assumed that he would be released before the season began.

Looking at it one year later, I could not have been more wrong. Pierre’s playing time increased as the season progressed and players got injured, and by season’s end, he had seemed to have passed Justin Layne, a player that I was very high on coming out of college, on the depth chart. With Mike Hilton signing with Cincinnati and the Steelers choosing to release Steven Nelson, Pierre seems to be the leader in the clubhouse for the number three cornerback job.

Just one year after the Steelers found a steal in James Pierre, they may have found another undrafted gem at the same position. I was shocked, and somewhat disappointed, when the Steelers passed on Shaun Wade in the fourth round, but the most surprising thing was that the Steelers chose not to address the position until the seventh round when they selected Tre Norwood, who may be better suited as a safety. However, this situation may open the door for Shakur Brown.

Brown is an experienced cornerback who is savvy in zone coverage. He lacks ideal size and speed, but his high IQ and fantastic ball skills often overcome his deficiencies as an athlete. There is no denying that he will struggle if he is put on an island against a speedy receiver, but his excellent read-and-react ability makes him a perfect fit in a zone-heavy scheme. In just seven games in 2020, Brown recorded five interceptions and four passes defended. The video below shows each of his five interceptions this past season.

At 0:12, he displayed his ability to track the ball downfield and make a play on the overthrown ball. It looks as if the receiver is going to run something similar to a fade route, but the ball is thrown too long and to the inside. Brown capitalizes and picks the ball off. At 0:36, Brown is in zone and sees the receiver running a slant toward the middle of the field. Unfortunately for Indiana, quarterback Michael Penix, Jr. gave Brown too much time to break on the ball and make a play. Brown saw where Penix wanted to go, and he displayed those excellent read-and-react skills and came away with the interception.

Below is a video of the Michigan State defense against the Michigan offense. There are times where his lack of size and speed are evident, but two of his four passes defended in the 2020 season came in this game. At 5:47, Brown (#29) is in position to intercept a pass, but his 5’10” frame combined with a poor jump kept him from picking the ball off. However, at 10:03, Michigan quarterback Joe Milton did not make a great decision with the ball. He was targeting Giles Jackson on the play, but the safety was ready and waiting for Jackson. Milton tried to throw a line-drive pass to get it to him before the safety closed on the ball, but it was low enough for Brown to make a play. It was a poor decision to throw it in that direction in the first place, but nonetheless, Shakur had a better jump on this one and was able to deflect the pass.

As a tackler, he did a good job of lowering his pads and making a couple crucial tackles. His only mistake was in the 4th quarter when he was unable to wrap up Michigan receiver Cornelius Johnson. Brown took a poor angle, and Johnson was able to pull away for an additional ten yards. Putting that aside, Brown’s overall performance was solid in Michigan State’s 27-24 victory against their archrival. You can check it out below.

The thing that stands out to me is that his athletic profile has some similarities to James Pierre. At the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine, Pierre ran a 4.59 in the 40, had a 33.5 inch vertical, and recorded a 7.02 in the 3-cone drill. There was no combine for Brown to participate in, but at Michigan State’s pro day, he recorded a 4.61 40, a 35.5 inch vertical, and a 7.08 3-cone drill. Pierre is 6’0” while Brown is about 5’10”, but they are both around 185 pounds. At the end of the day, Pierre might be an inch or two taller, but Brown has a little more production. Pierre may be slightly faster than Brown, but there is little difference between the two in that aspect.

James Pierre has the versatility to play inside or outside while Brown will likely be limited to the slot, but they play similar styles and have similar traits. Only time will tell as to whether or not these two prospects can become productive players, but if the Steelers are going to stick with their zone-heavy scheme, both Shakur Brown and James Pierre will have a chance to carve out nice careers in the Steel City.