Steelers OTA preview: Nelson, Layne present upgrade in secondary
Almost five months after playing their last game, the Pittsburgh Steelers are about to put a full roster of players on the field as they ramp up preparations for the 2019 season.
The third and final phase of the NFL’s offseason conditioning program begins May 21 for the Steelers with the first of 10 organized team activities, or OTAs.
Phase 3, as it is known, spans four weeks, with the final one featuring the team’s mandatory three-day minicamp. Players cannot wear pads except to cover the knees and elbows. Helmets can be worn and teams can participate in 11-on-11 drills, but no hitting is permitted.
Heading into the start of OTAs, the Tribune-Review will take a daily look at a position that will bear watching once the entire 91-man roster convenes at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Who’s back: Joe Haden, Artie Burns, Mike Hilton, Cameron Sutton, Brian Allen, Herb Waters
Haden is set to begin his third season as a starter, and the Steelers would like to extend his contract before the season begins. Burns will have to work his way back into the team’s plans as he enters perhaps his final season with the team. Hilton returns as the slot corner, although he will face competition from Sutton, among others. Allen will be fighting for a roster spot as will Waters, who spent last year on the practice squad.
Who’s gone: Coty Sensabaugh, Trey Johnson
Sensabaugh stepped up when Burns was demoted early last season, but the Steelers allowed him to leave as a free agent, confident that they could replace him via free agency or the draft – which they did.
Who’s new: Steven Nelson, Justin Layne, Marcellis Branch, Alexander Myres, Kameron Kelly
Nelson, formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs, was signed to start outside, but he also has experience playing in the slot. The Steelers used their second third-round pick to take Layne, who is 6-foot-3 and a former wide receiver. Branch is a former Robert Morris player who was brought in under a futures contract. Myres was one of 11 undrafted free agents signed in April, and Kelly joined the Steelers after playing in the defunct Alliance of American Football. He also can play safety.
What’s at stake?: The offseason roster moves show how much the Steelers were intent on upgrading the right cornerback spot. Burns will enter OTAs as perhaps the third choice at the position behind Nelson and possibly Layne. Nelson’s presence gives Layne some time to develop. The Steelers wisely declined to pick up Burns’ fifth-year contract option, and he’s no lock to be on the 53-man roster in September. That decision could depend on how quickly Layne grasps the team’s playbook. The Steelers also could use OTAs to work in others at Hilton’s slot position. Hilton has balked at signing his exclusive-rights contract tender, much like tackle Alejandro Villanueva did in 2017. Hilton, though, doesn’t have the leverage that Villanueva did, and the Steelers have options if they decide not to sign Hilton to a longer deal.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .