Devil’s Advocate: Plan AB For Punt-Return Duties

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: Might this be the year that the Steelers settle upon an alternative at the punt return position for Antonio Brown?

When the Steelers first drafted Antonio Brown and got a look at what he was capable of doing, they were looking for ways to get him involved. The first touch of his NFL career was taking a lateral on a kickoff and returning it for a 90-something-yard touchdown. By the end of that year he was making big catches in the playoffs when he was able to get on the field.

In 2011, the Steelers gave him both the kick and punt return duties, and he merely became the first player in NFL history to record 1000 yards as a receiver and 1000 yards as a returner in the same season. His cleats from that season are—or were at least—in Canton.

Since then, however, he has taken on a greater and greater role in the offense, and they have perpetually sought to find alternatives, even claiming Jacoby Jones off waivers and trying him there, which was a fruitless effort.

But how about this year? After giving him $17 million per season, could they finally find an answer? Well, I actually think so.

Given the sudden influx of depth at the wide receiver position, it’s wholly possible that the role of Eli Rogers is reduced heading into his second season on the 53-man roster. Early on last year when he was still getting his bearings the Steelers did give him work on punt returns. As he is more settled, and perhaps even with a lesser role, he could take on that role as his primary contribution this year.

The Steelers also drafted a couple of players this year who are capable of serving as returners, and they will certainly be given the opportunity to compete for a role in that respect in training camp.

But when it comes to Antonio Brown, it’s simply difficult to take him off the field. If they felt good enough about it, the Steelers probably would even want to put him back on kick returns because that unit has been so anemic since he left that role. Brown’s open-field shiftiness, ball security, and ability to shield himself are qualities not easily duplicated.

But they could certainly find somebody willing (or allowed) to take more risks. That could play a role in the ultimate decision as well.

Which side do you lean closer toward?

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