BTSC editors Dave Schofield and Jeff Hartman posted an updated article this week predicting the Steelers final 53 man roster, after the Steelers HOF game victory over the Dallas Cowboys last Thursday, and prior to the Steelers in-state rivalry game with the Philadelphia Eagles this Thursday. Their predictions were pretty similar across the board, and almost identical to my own, with a few exceptions.
One particular training camp battle mentioned caught my eye, James Pierre vs Justin Layne. As both Dave and Jeff mentioned in the article, that battle is really not a battle anymore. While Pierre appears to have taken the next step in his development; quite possibly the second best boundary corner on the roster behind Joe Haden currently, Layne has failed to show even marginal improvement, to the point that the Steelers are attempting to teach him basic footwork that many cornerbacks learned in high school.
To his credit, he has been working hard to learn and improve, according to all reports. Hopefully learning new and improved technique and footwork will result in rapid and drastic results, because time is running out for the young man with multiple upstarts challenging for his roster spot. This article intends to spotlight 3 possible challengers, based on various training camp reports and where we are in the preseason.
The first young man who has earned mention is Stephen Denmark. I kept noticing a tall, athletic player in the secondary during the second half of the HOF game. I couldn't make out the name on the back of his jersey due to some long dreadlocks, and I wasn't certain if he was a cornerback or a safety due to his impressive size and length. A quick glance at the roster and his number solved that dilemma, and it's safe to say I was impressed.
Denmark has exceptional measurables for a cornerback. He stands 6'2" and weighs 217 lbs. A former track and field star in high school, he ran a 4.46 forty to go along with a 43" vertical at his pro day in 2019. Simply put, he has elite size, speed, and athleticism for the position. What he doesn't have is ideal technique or experience at cornerback; after only playing corner his last two years at Valdosta State, a Division ll school in Georgia. Therefore he remains a very talented project, similar to the aforementioned Justin Layne, and former Steelers project Brian Allen. The Steelers do love their projects, although I am sure they would like to improve on their frequency of success if possible.
Denmark was a seventh round selection for the Chicago Bears in 2019, and has basically spent the past two years on and off the practice squad. Going back to his collegiate tape, his athleticism and aggressiveness flashes often on the screen. He is extremely physical, both in run support and in coverage. However, understandable due to his limited experience and level of competition, he relies too heavily on his athleticism. It remains to be seen if the instincts and intangibles are there. If they are, and the Steelers can coach him up so to speak, then he could be another hidden gem for the Steelers. He honestly could use another year on the practice squad most likely, but he may just surprise us all.
The next youngster also stood out in the second half of the game. Mark Gilbert was credited with 2 PBU, and he had excellent coverage throughout his time on the field. Gilbert also has solid length at 6', and even though he is a tad on the lean side at 186 lbs., he showed to be very competitive and willing to get his nose dirty. He has excellent instincts and intangibles, plus he ran a 4.48 forty at his pro day at Duke.
Had it not been for a severe hip injury and the corresponding rehabilitation, Gilbert was trending towards being a early round selection. He went undrafted after scouts expressed concerns with his ability to fully recover, especially in the ability to flip his hips effectively in coverage. If he has fully recovered, and can prove durable, then the Steelers got a early round selection as a undrafted free agent. He is a 24 year old rookie, so I am sure he doesn't want to waste anytime proving himself worthy of consideration for a roster spot.
The third corner prospect for consideration should come as no surprise for many of the BTSC faithful. Shakur Brown has been a name on many Steelers fans watch list since prior to the 2021 NFL Draft. Many believed he had the physical attributes and abilities to replace the departed Mike Hilton at slot corner for the Steelers, and most evaluators had him at least as a late round selection. After surprisingly going undrafted, the Steelers quickly signed him to a contract. They obviously thought he was potentially a good fit also.
Brown has both the good and bad fortune to possess the size and measurables of a prototypical slot corner. The bad part being his shorter stature and lack of long speed makes him primarily a slot corner only. After a rather productive collegiate career at Michigan State, he tested average to below on most attributes at his pro day. He measured in a smidge under 5'10" and ran somewhere in the 4.6 range, a tad slower than preferred or expected. Not sure why Brown failed to test as many believed he would, but his struggles may turn out to be the Steelers good fortune. One evaluator stated that Brown "plays the game like an angry hornet with a relentless, edgy play demeanor.” Sounds like a Steelers corner to me.
There wasn't much noteworthy news about the young man trickling out of camp initially, but that started to change last week. First his name started to be mentioned in camp reports, one day for coming down with an interception, and the next day for forcing a fumble. Then he went out and had an outstanding performance against the Cowboys, especially in kick coverage on special teams. As Keith Butler already mentioned earlier in training camp, special teams performance will be the deciding factor for all fringe roster spots. Brown definitely seized the opportunity that was presented to him.
Justin Layne definitely has every opportunity to make this roster, and his athleticism is without question. He probably has a leg up on the competition based on his draft pedigree alone. Problem is nobody knows if he has the instincts and mental make-up of a NFL cornerback. While he still has time to prove his worth to the team, he shouldn't feel too comfortable considering the talent gunning for his roster spot.