At this point in the offseason, we find that training camp is just around the corner for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the rest of the league, and a lot has changed for them over the course of the past several months. They have lost a number of players in free agency, through releases, and retirements. But they have also brought in a number of new faces to replace them.
We all know that roster turnover is an ever-present reality for today’s rosters, and it seems that over the course of the past half-decade or so even the Steelers have proven to be as susceptible to the annual shakeup as anybody. With that in mind, we should take the time to get to know some of the new faces with training camp soon to be here.
One of two selections by the Steelers in the seventh round of the 2016 NFL Draft and the second-to-last selection overall, wide receiver Demarcus Ayers was one of only two offensive players that the team selected in the seven-player class, the other being fourth-round offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins.
And Ayers was seemingly primarily viewed as a draftable candidate by them due to his ability to return punts, rather than his pass-catching ability, though his junior statistics would bear out the fact that he is not bereft of talent in that regard. But I believe there is little dispute that his safest path toward a spot on the 53-man roster is in solidifying himself as an option as a return man.
Of course, Antonio Brown has been the Steelers’ primarily punt returner over the course of the past six seasons, and he is certainly in no hurry to give up that position. For that matter, neither is Danny Smith enthusiastic about finding a replacement there for him, even if it was his evaluation that Ayers was the best punt returner in the draft class that got him drafted.
Ayers put up some poor workout numbers, but they can at least partially be explained away by injury, and his tape tells the tale better of what sort of speed and elusiveness he is able to play with, rather than 40 times. He did improve a pretty poor 40 time at his pro day.
While he has shown an ability to be successful returning kicks—he averaged 10.5 yards per punt in 2015, and 27.6 yards per kick return in 2013—his potential as a wide receiver is also intriguing after he broke out in that regard last season following rather paltry numbers earlier in his career.
Last year, Ayers recorded 98 receptions for 1222 yards and six touchdowns. He had just 33 receptions combined in his two previous seasons. He also averaged 5.7 yards on 26 carries for 148 yards and scored another touchdowns, adding another touchdown on a punt. Oh, and he also threw two touchdown passes, going two-for-three for 49 yards.
Ayers is an interesting player who can seemingly do a bit of everything, but it’s far from a sure thing that there is a roster spot waiting for him. Even without Martavis Bryant in the wide receiver room, the Steelers have some intriguing under the radar players clawing for a roster spot.