When the Pittsburgh Steelers decided to acquire cornerback Justin Gilbert from the Cleveland Browns via a trade on Saturday the team also received a player who has some experience returning kickoffs. As a result of that, head coach Mike Tomlin was predictably asked Tuesday during his press conference if he expects to use Gilbert in that phase of the game as he works on developing his skills as a cornerback.
“That’s to be determined just like his cornerback participation,” Tomlin said of the Browns former first-round draft pick. “We’re basing how we utilize him and our opinions regarding what he’s capable of based on what he does here and what we see him do.”
Even though it’s yet to be determined if Gilbert will be the team’s kick returner during the upcoming regular season, Tomlin was later asked if playing that role might be something he’s able to do more quickly as opposed to contributing on defense at the cornerback position.
“Potentially, but I’m not going to speculate,” said Tomlin.
Last year with the Browns, Gilbert returned 12 kickoffs for 339 yards with a long of 40. On Monday, he was asked to talk about the experience he’s had so far in the NFL returning kicks.
“I did that the majority of the time last year so it’s nothing new to me,” said Gilbert.
During their four preseason games, the Steelers let wide receiver Sammie Coates and running backs Fitzgerald Toussaint and Daryl Richardson all return kickoffs and in total the group averaged 23.2 yards per opportunity with a long 28. While Toussaint was responsible for the longest return of the three players listed above, Richardson’s average of 23.5 yards on his two opportunities led the way. It should also be noted that wide receiver Cobi Hamilton also returned two kickoffs for 51 yards during the preseason, however, he’s currently on the team’s 10-man practice squad.
Last season, the Steelers went through several kick returners and finally settled on using wide receiver Markus Wheaton in that role after Dri Archer and Jacoby Jones, both of whom are no longer with the team, were given chances to win the job. Wheaton, however, only returned 5 kickoffs during the regular season for a 21-yard average.
One would think the Steelers now hope that Gilbert can eventually be the team’s kick returner in 2016 and it will be interesting to see if he gets a chance to do so Monday night in the regular season opener against the Washington Redskins despite him being so new to the team.