Top Insider Casts Doubt on Future of Young Steelers CB

Justin Layne and James Pierre

Nic Antaya/Getty Images Donovan Peoples-Jones of the Cleveland Browns is tackled by Justin Layne of the Pittsburgh Steelers on January 3, 2021.

Two years ago Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin offered unsolicited praise about cornerback Justin Layne, saying the 2019 third-round pick “distinguished himself in a positive way” during his rookie year and had the potential to take a big step forward in his second season. But the expected improvement never materialized, and Layne has since been surpassed on the depth chart by former undrafted free agent James Pierre.

That helps explain why Brooke Pryor of ESPN has identified Layne as a player who is very much in danger of getting released this summer.

“The Steelers didn’t pick up a corner in the draft, which works in Layne’s favor, but unless he shows a big jump in training camp, Layne is firmly on the bubble entering the final year of his rookie deal,” says Pryor, having noted that the 24-year-old Michigan State product played just 28 defensive snaps last season.

Pryor isn’t the only Steelers beat writer who believes Layne is likely to lose his place on the team. Mark Kaboly of The Athletic calls it a “make-or-break season” for Layne, arguing that “it’s going to be difficult” for him to make the final 53.

Indeed, Layne has yet to make a start in the NFL, despite having appeared in 43 games, during which time he has been responsible for 41 tackles (28 solo) and a fumble recovery, according to Pro Football Reference.

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Pittsburgh’s Somewhat Precarious Situation at Cornerback

At this point, the main thing Layne has going for him is that there isn’t an obvious replacement for him on the 90-man roster, except in the sense that former Ravens wide receiver Miles Boykin is a strong candidate to displace him as a gunner on the punt coverage team.

Former third-round pick Cameron Sutton, re-signed former trade acquisition Ahkello Witherspoon and free agent acquisition Levi Wallace are Pittsburgh’s top 3 cornerbacks, with Arthur Maulet looking like the top backup at slot corner.

After that, things get very squishy, especially when you consider that James Pierre regressed over the course of last season — to the point where he didn’t play a defensive snap during the final six games of the year.

The rest of the cornerbacks on the 90-man roster are former undrafted free agents, a list that includes Linden Stephens, who spent much of last season on Pittsburgh’s practice squad. The Steelers also have a pair of rookie UDFA’s, namely Chris Steele (USC) and Carlins Platel (South Carolina), the latter of whom was signed after a rookie minicamp tryout.

Meanwhile, Joe Haden — who served as Pittsburgh’s No. 1 cornerback for the past five years — remains unsigned. Moving on from Haden figures to be a huge challenge. In 2020-21, the Steelers went 20-6-1 in games in which Haden was in the lineup, as compared to 1-7 in his absence.

The Salary Cap Implications of Releasing Justin Layne

If Justin Layne makes the 53-man roster, he will earn a $965,000 salary in 2022, as per — the amount the Steelers will save if he fails to make the team. If Layne is released, it will trigger a dead money cap charge of $230,545, which is the prorated portion of the signing bonus on his rookie deal.

As of July 6, Pittsburgh is carrying more than $30 million in dead money on its 2022 salary cap, with former quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and recently-retired defensive end Stephon Tuitt two of the three biggest liabilities.

As for the other roster bubble candidates from around the AFC North, ESPN identifies safety Tony Jefferson II (Ravens), punter Kevin Huber (Bengals) and running back D’Ernest Johnson (Browns) as among the most likely cuts.

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