The Pittsburgh Steelers have had the luxury of employing the services of Antonio Brown as their primary punt returner for the bulk of his career. It is a luxury in the sense that he has in the past been a Pro Bowl performer in that capacity.
It is also a luxury, of course, because Brown is an All-Pro wide receiver on offense, a player who led the league in receiving yards and receptions just a year ago, meaning that he is an extremely high-volume participant on offense.
Ever since Brown emerged in the starting lineup three seasons ago, there have been mutterings of a possible desire to find somebody else who could suitably return punts to take his place in order to mitigate the risk of injury to their star offensive player.
Even though he still excels in his capacity as the team’s primary punt returner—he recorded his third punt return touchdown in the critical season finale last year that vaulted the Steelers into division champions—there may be some reason to believe that he would prefer it if somebody else could manage it.
Overall, Brown has a fairly high percentage of fair catches on punt returns when compared to the rest of the league, which suggests that he is taking it upon himself to mitigate his risk of injury on his own. Brown fair caught over a third of his punts in 2014, but that number was much higher the year prior.
There have also been occasional comments here and there alluding to his extra usage that comes with special teams. While he no doubt enjoys the opportunity to make plays, he rightfully has concerns about the added risk of injury.
With his reported interest in a new contract earlier this offseason—which, admittedly, was made more of than it turned out to be, or else he simply had a substantial change of heart in his way of going about it—it wouldn’t be surprising if he sought to be alleviated of much of his special teams duties this year.
Yet the Steelers did not add anybody during the draft or in free agency this year that has any return bona fides. Third-round wide receiver Sammie Coates, for example, never participated in any returns in college, nor have any of the defensive backs that they drafted.
The two most likely candidates for the job, I would have to think, would be wide receiver Markus Wheaton and running back/wide receiver Dri Archer. Archer, in fact, was drafted in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft largely with special teams in mind.
He was given first dibs at the kickoff return duties to start the regular season, but he struggled, and was eventually replaced with Wheaton, who served competently as the kick return, but not dynamically.
With an extra offseason for each, and perhaps more preparation for the role, especially considering Wheaton’s competition for his starting job, I would not be surprised if we see these two young players share the bulk of the return duties this year, particularly if Brown actually desires to see less time on special teams.