For the second time this season, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be starting a new player as the kick returner, after head coach Mike Tomlin benched Jacoby Jones for fumbling the opening kickoff and later a punt on a fair catch attempt, the latter of which the Steelers were fortunate enough to recover.
It was Dri Archer as the starting kick returner for the first eight games, posting an average of 25.3 yards on 14 total kick returners. While that was a significant improvement from his efforts last year, it was hardly in the top 20 this year among those who have returned at least five kickoffs, and outside of the top 10 among those whose kick returns are in double figures.
For his part, Jones had gotten his return average up to near Archer’s for the season with a strong four-return performance in Seattle before looking disastrous as week ago, and currently has an average of 24.4 yards on nine returns.
Replacing him will be Markus Wheaton, who was the Steelers’ third kick returner last year as well. It was Archer to begin the season, and then it was LeGarrette Blount, briefly, who returned five kickoffs for just a 20.6-yard average.
Wheaton took over the role approximately halfway through the season, returning 20 kickoffs and averaging 24.7 yards per return in doing so, with his longest return going for 41 yards, which is longer than any return the Steelers have had this season.
In fact, Wheaton held the six longest returns for the Steelers that season, and was the only player on the roster to return a kick 30 yards or more. The then second-year player returned six of his 20 kickoffs for at least 30 yards,
On the other hand, he also had the shortest proper return of the year, an 11-yard return out to the 14-yard line, and had five total kick returns that gained less than 20 yards. The majority of those returns came in December, toward the end of the season, though the worst came when he had to fill in for Archer early in the year due to injury.
Wheaton was not a returner in college, though he did run track. In his four season at Oregon State, he returned just four kickoffs for a 20.3-yard average and one punt, though for 52 yards, all during his sophomore year. He also returned two punts during his senior year for an eight-yard average.
Wheaton may not necessarily have a glowing resume, but he is the latest player on deck to serve for the Steelers as the kick returner, and I am interested to see how he performs in comparison to his efforts last season, which were inconsistent but showed potential.
Of course, the team does have some players on the roster, such as Brandon Boykin and Jordan Todman, with a tangible pedigree for the return game, and Todman is listed as second on the depth chart for kick returner. If Wheaton doesn’t work out, perhaps Tomlin will turn to one of them, but with just four seasons to go, the window is likely too small to make a change.