Devil’s Advocate: Ayers With A Punter’s Chance

You may recall for the past several offseasons that I ran an article series called The Optimist’s/Pessimist’s Take. I used it to explore different issues and topics the Pittsburgh Steelers were facing and took a positive or negative approach, examining each side in a separate article. This is essentially the same idea behind that, only condensed into one article for every topic.

In this version of the idea, I’ll be playing the Devil’s Advocate for both sides of the issue, looking at the best-case and worst-case scenarios in trying to find the range of likely outcomes of what is likely to happen for the Steelers relating to whatever topic the article is covering.

When it comes to the process of trying to construct a championship roster, the reality is that there are a ton of moving parts, and several ways to acquire said parts. There are a lot of things that can go right or wrong in not always predictable ways, so I think it’s helpful to try to look at issues by seeking out the boundaries of the likely positive or negative results.

Topic: Will Demarcus Ayers win the punt returner job and remain on the 53-man roster as he left off?

When the Steelers used a seventh-round draft pick on wide receiver Demarcus Ayers, they didn’t even bother to bring out the wide receivers coach to talk about him. Instead, they brought out the special teams coach to tell the gathered media that he was their highest-graded punt returner.

But he failed to win the punt return job as a rookie and instead showed well in the preseason on offense, managing to do enough to make the practice squad, which set him up for a late-season call-up. He contributed in the final two games of the regular season, including the pivotal Christmas Day game against the Ravens.

But he wouldn’t have been on the roster were it not for so many injuries. Markus Wheaton was on injured reserve and Martavis Bryant was suspended. Sammie Coates was a virtual non-factor on offense due to a hand injury, while Darrius Heyward-Bey was still recovering from a foot injury.

It took all of that to get him on the roster the first time, and since then, while they have lost Wheaton, they have regained Bryant, while also adding Justin Hunter in free agency and drafting JuJu Smith-Shuster. It’s a crowded depth chart.

But in the rare instances in which the Steelers outright keep six wide receivers, the sixth is almost always a highly important contributor on special teams. If that is Heyward-Bey this year, then it makes sense. If it’s Hunter, or Coates, then they are vulnerable.

The Steelers have tried to get Antonio Brown off of kick returns for a couple years. They drafted Ayers for his punt return capabilities. He is capable of doing that, and is clawing for a roster spot. This is clearly his best opportunity. He will have to show that he is able to take intelligent risks that pay off, but there is a narrow window of opportunity for him, I believe.

Which side do you lean closer toward?

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