By now, you’ve probably already noticed that the Pittsburgh Steelers spent a seventh-round draft pick on a punt returner who just so happens to be able to play wide receiver. With that, you’ve also already probably noticed that the player in question, Demarcus Ayers, best 40-yard dash time of 4.66 seconds isn’t necessarily one that most people associate with a top-rated punt returner.
During his Saturday press conference with the local media, Steelers special teams coordinator Danny Smith was asked if he thought straight-line speed is overrated and as you’ve come to expect, his response was quite interesting and enlightening.
“It matters honestly. It really does,” said Smith. “Forty times matter, but maybe they matter too much. There’s a play speed in this league. This kid plays fast. If I showed you the tape I put together on this kid, you wouldn’t think that that’s a matchup of the time he does. To be honest with you, and I’m a little bit old fashioned in a lot of ways, I don’t know where when we started in one of the most crazy things in all of football, whether it be in high school or college or professional football, we wear about 15-pounds of pads with helmets, shoulder pads and pads and girdles and thighs and knees and then we time these guys in track shoes and their underwear. I don’t know where we went wrong with that. If I had to do it, I’d time them in full pads. I’m just trying to translate.
“That’s what I mean by play speed. This kid plays faster than his 40-time. Maybe that’s his vision. Maybe that’s quicker decisions. I think if we took a lot of guys at 7/11, they would run fast, but if the cop is chasing them they would be a little faster. I think some of our players are like that. Don’t make the insinuation that they’re all getting chased by the cops. I didn’t say that. I’m just saying in that environment when you have a defensive guy or punt team chasing these guys, they’re pretty quick. This guy falls in that category.”
Ayers, who posted a very slow 40-yard dash time of 4.72 seconds at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine back in February, initially blamed his poor run on his surgically repaired pinkie finger on his right hand.
“I didn’t perform how I wanted to, I couldn’t get tension on the ground with my hand,” Ayers said, according to Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle. “I wanted to show the teams I could come out here and compete and play through injuries. It was the worst start I’ve had in training just because I’ve got this cast on.
“I wanted to show I can compete under any circumstances. I’m not going to make any excuses for myself. I ran well, I couldn’t get a fast start and it killed me in the long run. I was very disappointed.”
After posting that time at the combine, Ayers had the surgical pins removed prior to his pro day and while he was able to lower his 40-time some, it still was disappointing. Slow times and all, Smith said Saturday that he did extensive research on Ayers when it comes to his return abilities and that when all was said and done he had him ranked as the top punt returner in this year’s draft class.
“I brought a list,” explained Smith. “When I evaluate a returner, I’m not going to bore you with a bunch of things. We’re not just talking about the whole education of all of this thing for all of us. I look at their hands, their quickness. Do they muff? Are there fumbles? What’s their decision making? What’s their vision? What’s their ability to avoid? Do they break tackles? Are they fearless? Are they tough? Will they outrun coverage? Do they have TD speed? Are they sideline returners? Are they middle returners? Can they make cuts at full speed? Are they a must gather guy? Can they make the first guy miss? Do they only get what’s blocked? Do they have the ability to create? And I plus and minus all of those qualities. Then after I plus and minus those qualities, I reach a conclusion. That’s how I come up the list and rate. This kid had more of those qualities as a punt returner than anyone else I evaluated.”
Time will tell as to whether or not Ayers’ straight-line speed is overrated but for now, you can bet that he’ll be given every opportunity to make the Steelers 53-man roster this year as the team’s punt returner. Ayers returned 33 punts for 312 yards and a touchdown during his college career in addition to returning 71 kickoffs for 1,613 yards and a score. On top of that, while the Steelers obviously value Ayers as a punt receiver more so than they do a wide receiver, he still managed to catch 98 passes for 1,222 yards and 6 touchdowns last season on 132 total targets. By my count, only five other players had more receptions than Ayers did last season in the FBS.
Who knows, just maybe the Steelers drafted a wide receiver who can also return punts.
We will have a full breakdown of Ayers coming for you very soon.