Last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers believed that they found an immediate upgrade for their too often sub-par kick return game when they drafted running back Dri Archer in the third round.
Archer was an accomplished kick returner in college, returning four of the 18 kickoffs that he fielded over his last two seasons for touchdowns, averaging just under 40 yards per return. Opponents eventually stopped kicking to him after a certain point, when at all possible.
But NFL kickers were all too happy to put the ball in his hands once he got to the NFL, because he was utterly unable to find success in that role during his rookie season with the Steelers. In all, he returned nine kickoffs for a total of 161 yards, averaging under 18 yards per return.
Three of his returns came in less than 15 yards. His longest return of 23 yards—the only time he returned a kick beyond the 20-yard line—was negated by a holding penalty that helped him get those 23 yards.
But those results are not necessarily terribly surprising, and it would be erroneous to carry into his second year the assumption that he is incapable of improving at this task. He only returned two kicks in the season opener, during which he was injured, and he proceeded to miss the following two games.
In his second game against the Browns, Archer did manage to return three kicks for 20 yards or more, though none of them actually reached the 20-yard line. After the following game, in which he had a return of just 13 yards, he was benched in favor of LeGarrette Blount.
Archer did not see the field on special teams again during his rookie season as a returner, although Danny Smith did attempt to get him involved on occasion in other ways, including playing on the punt blocking team, deducing that he could use his speed off the edge.
As his special teams value diminished, however, so too did his game day value, which saw him on the inactive list late in the year. But the hope is that he will make himself an indispensable helmet on game day with his return ability, and the Steelers seem set to give him that opportunity.
Both offensive coordinator Todd Haley and general manager Kevin Colbert have spoken about Archer and the potential role that he could play as he grows in his second season, which was largely focused on the possibility of contributing on offense.
Yesterday, head coach Mike Tomlin spoke about Archer in the capacity as a returner, telling reporters that they will “give him a chance to be a horse in that field again”. And while he was never able to get into a meaningful competition for the punt return duties last season, it seems that is more up for grabs in 2015, in part due to Antonio Brown’s continually rising status on offense.
Tomlin spoke about the punt returner job yesterday, saying that he was “excited” about how that might develop, “whether it’s Antonio Brown, whether it’s Dri Archer, whether it’s a player to be named later”. Archer was named now, and he’d better make a successful return to the return duties if he wants to keep hearing his name.