Training camp is now upon us, in case you have failed to take notice. The Pittsburgh Steelers reported to Latrobe on July 28, and began practicing the following day in preparation for their first preseason game on August 12, and eventually, for the 2016 regular season in April.
Every NFL season is like an investigation of sorts, with the offseason and preseason serving as the fact-finding portion, gathering the questions that are most prudent to ask in order to understand the story of the team in the current season. And it is in training camp that we really begin to start finding the answers to those questions.
You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in training camp and the preseason looking for the answers as we look to evaluate the makeup of the Steelers as they head into a regular season in which they are among the favorites to win the Super Bowl.
Question: Will somebody not named Antonio Brown return kicks for the Steelers this year?
This question has been asked throughout the offseason, and, frankly, has been asked every year since about 2012, but we certainly have the fuel for it. Mike Tomlin took him off of punts last year, after all, and they drafted the player they believe to be the top punt returner in the draft in seventh-round wide receiver Demarcus Ayers.
The Steelers also like second-year wide receiver Eli Rogers, who was an undrafted free agent last year and turned some head in the spring and early in training camp before an injury ended his rookie season and landed him on injured reserve.
It is also notable that fourth-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton has said that he wants to compete for both the kick and punt return jobs this year. He has served as the team’s kick returner at the end of each of the past two seasons after previous options failed.
Last season, during the Divisional Round playoff game against the Broncos, Wheaton got a shot at returning punts when Brown was out due to having suffered a concussion, but his performance left much to be desired, particularly from the neck up.
Wheaton has not exactly wowed much as all during his limited exposure to the return role, but the more options that there are available to them, the better, and it seems that his in-game opportunities have likely come with minimal preparation.
Brown may not return a single punt all preseason to give the team nice, long looks at players like Ayers and Rogers, who may have the best chance to land the job, because in doing so they will also secure their place on the 53-man roster.
And, of course, the team is motivated to get Brown out of that role. Or at least certain segments of the team. Training camp and the preseason is the period in which the answer to this question will be resolved. Were I a betting man, however, I wouldn’t bet against Brown. Still, somebody has to return kicks.