While the Pittsburgh Steelers may have gained some tangible evidence of improvement, improving their win total by three games and hosting a playoff game as a division champion for the first time in four seasons, there is no doubt that the team is far from a finished product.
No team, of course, is a finished product in the offseason. Every team loses players to free agency and retirement, and replaces them through the same free agency process, as well as the draft.
With all of the change that occurs during the offseason, it’s often difficult to predict how a particular team might fare. They may wind up holding the Lombardi trophy or the first overall draft pick when all is said and done.
In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the pessimistic side of the coin.
Question: Would it be wise for the Steelers to invest in a kick returner this season?
For seemingly the majority of the team’s history, they have placed little value in generation a high quality return game. If they happen to have one, they happen to have one. Rarely have they had, for example, a legitimate return specialist.
In fairness, they were evidently hoping that Dri Archer would be that and more during his rookie season in 2014. Perhaps he may still develop into that, and I certainly would not advocate giving up on a third-round draft pick in his second season.
Still, the fact remains that he struggled so much in that role that he failed to reach the 20-yard line on any of his returns, which was a hindrance to the offense. Markus Wheaton provided a spark here and there, but even his overall average was little more than pedestrian at best.
There are teams in the NFL who truly see a significant benefit from devoting a lot of time into their special teams units, and a position such as kick returner, of course, has the greatest opportunity to provide an impact.
This is why some teams do choose to invest in kick returners who often feature almost exclusively in that role, because they recognize the potential value in that position.
But at the same time, it must be said that a sizable portion of that value was eroded when the league moved the kickoff spot from the 30-yard line to the 35, which saw touchbacks skyrocket, and also produced a number of shorter returns from return men willing to take a ball out from nine yards deep.
Even more significant an issue for the Steelers, I believe, however, is that their special teams return unit as a whole was lacking last year. Too many times would players get out of their lanes or miss on blocks, which would result in poor field position. This also applied to the punting unit. Outside of two returns in the first and last game of the season, Antonio Brown had a pretty modest year in that capacity.
Paying a return specialist to run behind a broken return unit is not a smart investment. The unit has to be in place first in order for the returner to be able to take advantage of it. Fixing the unit and let Archer and Wheaton compete for the job may be the most pragmatic, and certainly the cheapest, solution.