While the Pittsburgh Steelers spent much of the Saturday portion of the 2016 NFL Draft twiddling their thumbs in light of a nearly 100-selection gap between their first and second selections of the day, the late portions of the late rounds got busy again for the Steelers, with three selections in a 27-pick span.
One of those three selections was used to invest specifically in a punt returner, as evidenced by the fact that it was special teams coach Danny Smith who walked into the press room to address the media after the pick was made to discuss Houston wide receiver Demarcus Ayers.
Smith, the veteran special teams coach who has been with the Steelers for the last several years, even showed the gathered media his own list of the top prospects in the draft for the role of punt returner, and Ayers was on the top of the list, whom Pittsburgh acquired with their first of two seventh-round selections, 229th overall.
The 5’9”, 182-pound wide receiver was a fairly prolific returner throughout his collegiate career, totaling over 100 returns between kickoffs and punts over a three-year span, with him focusing solely on the former his freshman season and having fully converted over to the latter by his junior year.
At Houston, Ayers returned 71 kickoffs for 1613 yards, a 22.7-yard average, including one touchdown. He averaged 27.6 yards per return his freshman year, but just 17.4 yards per return his sophomore season, during which he remained a limited offensive contributor.
His junior year, however, was another matter, and it came with a heavy heart after suffering personal tragedies in the offseason. That, and also fueled by a coaching change, nearly had Ayers quitting the team, but he eventually bought in and began to blossom.
Now fully committed to returning punts—he returned five punts for just 22 yards in 2014—Ayers had 28 punt returns on the season for a healthy 10.5-yard average, including one that he returned for a touchdown. I don’t know the full story of his 2014 season, but he showed well as a kick returner in 2013 and as a punt returner in 2015.
But he also grew as a wide receiver in 2015, recording 97 receptions as he embraced the slot role in the offense, coming up with six touchdowns while gaining 1221 yards. He also carried the ball 26 times for 147 yards and a touchdown, scoring eight touchdowns on the season in total.
Of course, it may be a while, if ever, before the Steelers give him a serious look at wide receiver. Smith was pretty clear about where his interest lay with Ayers, whom he described as a punt returner.
But he should have a good opportunity to compete for a spot that the Steelers have tried to fill for years now, most recently with Dri Archer in 2014 and Jacoby Jones in 2015. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but the team felt it was worth the late investment, especially given that he declared early.