One of the areas of the game in which Pittsburgh Steelers fans have been critical in recent years has been in the special teams department, particularly when it comes to returns, but injuries in recent years have also seen sporadic lapses in the coverage units as well, which have not been as good as they could be.
It doesn’t help that the Steelers are looking at losing, or have already lost, some of their best special-teams players in recent years. As much of a favorite whipping-boy he may have become for his defensive capabilities, the departure of Antwon Blake was a blow to the unit.
It’s certainly looking as though the team is prepared to part ways with Shamarko Thomas, who has been the team’s best gunner in the past couple of seasons, after electing not to re-sign him when he hit free agency, and he remains available. It’s also a distinct possibility that another special-teams standout, Darrius Heyward-Bey, fails to make the roster.
These losses will naturally have to be compensated for, and there are plenty of good names to choose from coming out of the Steelers’ 2017 NFL Draft class. It should go without saying that the Steelers did not draft these players—sans Colin Holba—for their ability to contribute in the third phase of the game, but it is a critical role, and it often falls to young reserves.
Potential contributors start right at the top with first-round outside linebacker T.J. Watt. If that sounds surprising to you, it shouldn’t. If you look back to the 2015 season, both former first-round outside linebackers Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree each contributed roughly 100 snaps of special-teams work.
I have a feeling that second-round wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is eager to start smacking people on special teams, personally. He has already stated his willingness to “do anything possible to bring the Steelers back to the Super Bowl, whether that’s special teams”, among other duties.
And you know James Conner, another offensive player, will get his load of work there, something that Head Coach Mike Tomlin talked about after the draft, citing his history also contributing on the defensive side of the ball at the high school, and in spot work, even the college level. He likes to hit.
It’s interesting that the Steelers added two very physical and aggressive offensive players, by the way, which, perhaps, some might have felt lacking in a more finesse offense in recent years.
Pittsburgh also added a pair of cornerbacks, which is often the bread and butter of many critical special teams roles, and you know Tennessee team captain Cameron Sutton is going to embrace that role. Brian Allen and Sutton could both benefit from special-teams assignments, frankly, when it comes to sharpening their teeth for the physicality of defense at the NFL level.
Bypassing the obvious contributions of Holba, we get to Keion Adams in the seventh round. His scouting report, frankly, reads like that of a special teams player. Perhaps Joshua Dobbs won’t be chasing down any returners this year, but outside of their fourth-round selection, it seems as though any draft pick that makes this roster will be likely to put his hand in the pile to try to revamp the Steelers’ special teams.