Updated: Jul 24
In the NFL, having desirable physical traits does not always ensure success.
Since his first preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, fourth-year cornerback Justin Layne has yet to find a comfortable place in the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense.
Coming out of Michigan State, Layne's height, length, and athleticism made him the player any team would want in their secondary. So desirable, in fact, that the Steelers took him in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Since that time, not only has Layne failed to make any starts on defense, he has even been surpassed on the depth chart by James Pierre, an undrafted player out of Florida Atlantic.
When viewing Layne's career at this point, one cannot help but spot similarities between him and former Steelers cornerback Curtis Brown. Like Layne, Brown came to the team with much fanfare, only for him to leave following the 2013 season. For this occasion, we will explore both of them from different aspects to show why they are both carbon copies of each other.
Physical And Combine Attributes:
When viewed solely from their physical measurables, Layne is taller at 6'2 and weighs slightly more than Brown. Yet, when it comes to arm length and hand size, they are nearly identical, with the edge going to Brown.
From their NFL Combine measurables, both produced similar numbers in the 40-yard dash and the vertical jump. Overall, both Brown and Layne carried desirable metrics for the position. Both were selected in the third round of their respective drafts, Brown in 2011 and Layne in 2019.
Stats and Struggles In Coverage:
From this perspective, both of their NFL careers were eerily similar after three seasons.
In Brown's case, from 2011 to 2013, he made zero starts but played in 34 games in his NFL career. Layne, at this point, has zero career starts and has played in 43 games. From a production standpoint, they are almost identical, with Brown having the slight edge in total tackles, passes defended, and tackles for loss.
Both Brown and Layne struggled in similar ways in coverage. Brown played primarily in the slot and struggled with anticipating crossing routes. When positioned outside, he had many issues shadowing receivers due to his inability to recognize where his leverage was being attacked. As a consequence, he would get lost in coverage.
Similar to Brown, Layne is prone to getting beaten by crossing routes. When positioned outside, Layne struggles in press coverage due to weak fundamentals. Often, Layne will play off-man in fear of getting beaten vertically. Even with this, his inability to recognize where his leverage is being attacked has made him vulnerable to getting beaten by ball fakes or double moves by opposing receivers, as seen in the example below.
In all, both have played the majority of their snaps on special teams. Layne has only played 145 defensive snaps and 599 special team snaps in his career. For Brown, he played just 81 defensive snaps and 327 special team snaps from 2012-2013.
Whether Layne's career ends up matching that of Brown remains to be seen. What can be said is that this year's training camp may represent the last chance Layne may have to prove himself worthy of a bigger role on the Steelers' defense. One thing is certain, he has all
the physical tools needed to become a full-time starter in the NFL. For Layne, it is about developing the instincts to make plays and the fundamentals to be effective in coverage. If he has evolved to the point where he has improved in both areas, good things will start to happen.