Justin Layne isn’t the most popular amongst draft picks, but he should be. A few days ago the Pittsburgh Steelers finally inked their final draft pick to his four year contract. Layne was slotted by many draft analysts as a potential first round cornerback going into draft day. A player that is relatively raw but has quite a high ceiling at only 21 years old. Mel Kiper of ESPN had the Michigan State cornerback slotted at pick 29 but said this about his fit in Pittsburgh: “I was surprised Layne lasted this far into the draft. I put him at No. 29 in my final mock draft, and I thought he’d go in the top 40. I love this fit in Pittsburgh, where the team brought in free agent Steven Nelson, and former first-rounder Artie Burns took a step back last season”. SteelDad of SCB did our NFL Draft Player Profile on Layne, but I had to go back and study him myself. I came away very encouraged and excited about the selection.
Layne’s Athletic Profile
Layne’s athletic profile is one that should get Steelers fans excited. Length and athleticism are two traits that usually don’t coexist. With length, it becomes more difficult to run faster, move more fluidly and change direction. In Layne’s case, he’s not the most athletic player over 6 foot, but what he does offer is some extremely solid and encouraging numbers in his athletic profile. These metrics offer a theory that Layne can keep up with what NFL offenses throw his way.
2018 was Layne’s second year at the cornerback position and he posted 72 total tackles in 2018, which is 11 more than any cornerback drafted before him (Joejuan Williams). For some context: Greedy Williams 71 total tackles in his CAREER (two years total), Byron Murphy 74 total tackles in his career (two total years), DeAndre Baker 40 total tackles in 2018, Sean Bunting 37 total tackles in 2018, and so on. Layne’s 44 solo tackles ranked T-2nd in CFB. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Layne missed just THREE tackles in 2018. The Steelers are getting a very willing and high effort tackler.
If you haven’t been informed yet, Layne is a former wide receiver, so his ball skills are duly noted. His long frame and instinct to get his hands on the ball have translated very well to becoming a ‘defensive’ defender. In 2018, Layne tied fifth in CFB with 15 pass break ups. In comparison to popular other cornerbacks taken before Layne: Williams had nine, Murphy 13, Baker nine and Bunting had five pass break ups.
In coverage, Layne played very well in man-to-man coverage, mirroring well and transitioning deep with ease. His footwork and hips are fluid and his eyes are moderately nuanced. According to PFF: “Layne ranked fourth in yards allowed per coverage snap (0.68) and tied for third in first downs allowed percentage (21.74%). Removing targets in his coverage thrown nine or fewer yards beyond the line of scrimmage, Layne allowed receptions on just 11-of-49 targets for 259 yards, eight first downs and two touchdowns since 2017. His 22.4% completion percentage allowed led all draft-eligible cornerbacks with 40 or more targets of 10-plus air yards in the last two years, and his forced incompletion percentage (30.6%) ranks sixth among the group of 89 qualifiers.” His coverage skills will only get better, as well as his technique. The Steelers have been playing man-to-man increasingly more over the past several years, so Layne’s fit in this regard is rather perfect.
Off the field, there are no blemishes on Layne’s character. Aside from being a former Browns fan, nothing to note or flag. From the interviews I’ve seen, Layne seems like a quiet guy who is a competitor and all about putting in the work to get better.
When I think about this selection, a few thoughts rush through:
- This selection was due to Joe Haden’s expiring contract, age and slight decline in athleticism. Perhaps the Layne selection gives the Steelers some leverage on signing Haden to an extension that is on the cheaper side. Also, Layne gives them a stable option on the outside if Haden or Nelson are to go down.
- The Steelers really like Layne’s skill-set, character and ability to contribute on the field early. Perhaps even enough to push newly signed free agent cornerback Steven Nelson into the slot.
- The Steelers had a depth issue at the cornerback position and Layne was high on their board.
The selection of Justin Layne has me both excited and encouraged about what he can bring to the Steelers in the long term, as well as the short term. His ceiling is undoubtedly high and with the correct and proper development, transforming into a shutdown corner in the NFL is not out of the question.