The Steelers’ brass probably thought that their “kick returner prayers” were answered after they selected Chris Rainey in the 5th round of the 2012 N.F.L. Draft. While the diminutive running back performed capably at times during his rookie campaign, his off-field issues eventually led to his release in January.
To their credit, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders showed flashes of brilliance over their careers as kickoff and punt returners. With “Butterfingers” Wallace out of town however, Brown and Sanders will likely be employed strictly on the offensive side of the ball as Pittsburgh’s starting wide receivers.
Thankfully for new special teams coach Danny Smith, he will have a number of players at his disposal to employ as kick and punt returners to fill the voids left by Rainey, Brown and Sanders.
I will admit that I was excited when I read the news that the Steelers inked LaRod Stephens-Howling on Day 2 of “Draft Weekend.” Not only did the franchise need a capable and shifty “third down back” (sorry Baron Batch), they were in desperate need of someone who could handle kickoff and punt return duties capably as well.
During 2009 and 2010 combined, the former Pitt Panther registered 2,805 return yards and three touchdowns on kickoff returns. “The Hyphen” was a bright-spot for the Cardinals on special teams since he entered the league in 2009, and one has to believe that he will be the front-runner to earn the full-time job as the team’s kick returner over the coming months.
Punt returns could be a different story for Stephens-Howling, especially since he was not used in that role as a member of the Cardinals. Yet I would have to think that the Steelers’ brass on special teams would give him a chance to compete for that job as well. If Stephens-Howling is utilized in that capacity though, Pittsburgh does have other options.
Pittsburgh’s 3rd round pick from April’s draft definitely has the skill-set to emerge as a successful kick and punt returner for the Steelers to use this fall. Wheaton has the speed to break away from would-be tacklers in the open field and the agility and shiftiness to make open field opportunities happen.
Markus did not receive many chances to contribute as a return man during his collegiate career. In fact, he was used very little in the kick and punt returning capacities due to the fact that Jordan Poyer handled almost all of those duties for the Beavers. Due to Poyer’s prowess and productivity Wheaton only returned four kickoffs (81 yards) and returned three punts (68 yards).
I however would not be shocked if the coaching staff is hesitant to use Wheaton as a return man if he can climb all the way to #3 on Pittsburgh’s depth chart at the wide receiver position like “Butterfingers” Wallace did during his rookie campaign in 2009. Regardless of how Wheaton is used on the offensive side of the ball this fall, he does have the skill-set to be an effective return man.
Unfortunately for Hawthorne, his recent knee injury will keep him from competing for a kick return job until training camp begins. Nevertheless, the former Illinois cornerback made his presence felt as a kick returner last season and managed to do an effective job as he returned 12 kickoffs for 255 yards.
Although Hawthorne does not possess the type of long-term experience as some of the other players on this list, I would have to think that he would receive at least a shot to prove himself as a kick returner to the coaching staff. Extra skills and talents are always taken into account when coaches evaluate whether or not players can stick and stay on the 53-man roster every year. Thus, Terry can boost his chances of staying off the practice squad if he can perform well as a return man.
Although I am intrigued to see how well Brown performs as a wide receiver during the upcoming offseason and preseason, his abilities as a potential return man peak my interest as well.
While Brown might possess a bigger frame (6’3″ 209 lbs.) for a return man, it did not stop him from being one of college football’s most effective punt returners over the last two seasons. During his final year at Penn State and only year at Oklahoma, Justin combined to record 519 yards on 49 punt returns including one touchdown last year for the Sooners.
There is no doubt that the Steelers’ wide receiver-pool will be extremely deep and competitive over the next few months. Yet if Brown can show off some punt returning skills for the coaching staff, they could very well give him a long look as a potential 53-man roster candidate as opposed to a practice squad player during his rookie campaign.
The recently signed UDFA from the University of Utah is the biggest “wild-card” of this group, and he deserves to be simply due to his raw speed. Dunn, who ran a 4.22 40-yard dash at his Pro Day and looks every bit as fast on tape, was an absolute monster as a kick returner during the final three years of his collegiate career with the Utes.
Overall, Dunn returned 48 kickoffs for 1,482 yards from 2010-2012. The speedster not only averaged 30.8 yards per kickoff return though. He managed to score a total of five touchdowns over that span as well, including four last season!
Like Stephens-Howling though, Dunn does not have a large amount of experience returning punts. In fact, during his three years at Utah he only returned one (seven yards). Moreover, Reggie was also lightly used in Utah’s offense as a wide receiver. Dunn only caught a total of 31 passes for 355 yards and one touchdown and was actually used on the ground more than through the air (40 carries, 330 yards, two touchdowns).
While the Steelers have carried “return men-only” on their roster before (most recently Stefan Logan), Dunn’s best chance of making the roster let along the practice squad likely centers on him developing as a punt returner and as a running back or wide receiver. The former Ute should receive plenty of chances during the preseason and training camp to shine. Moreover, it should be fun to watch him hopefully blaze up and down the field and evolve into the weapon that Chris Rainey failed to be.
Opportunities should be ample for these five players to take control of the return duties over the next few months. As I mentioned before, Pittsburgh’s coaching staff will likely have to find someone to take the places of Brown and Sanders simply because both will be the team’s #1 and #2 wide receivers this fall. Thus, any one of these five players will have their fair share of chances to make an impact on kickoff and punt returns.
Personally, I do not particularly care who steps up for the Steelers this fall in those roles. I just hope that an answer or two can be found before the regular season begins in September. Most of all though, I would like to see Pittsburgh’s return teams improve off of their pedestrian and mistake-laden showings from last season.
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Stats Provided By: ESPN.com
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