Immediately after the Pittsburgh Steelers selected wide receiver Demarcus Ayers in the seventh-round of the 2016 NFL Draft out of Houston, the team somewhat surprisingly chose to let special teams coordinator Danny Smith talk about him with the media instead of wide receivers’ coach Richard Mann. When Smith addressed the selection of Ayers, he explained that the team had the wide receiver ranked as the top punt returner in the class.
While Ayers, who returned 33 punts for 312 yards and a touchdown during his college career, in addition to returning 71 kickoffs for 1,613 yards and a score, was given an opportunity to return punts during training camp and the subsequent preseason, his five total returns for 14 yards with a long of 5 yards in the exhibition games wasn’t good enough to warrant him making the team’s 53-man roster and thus he found himself on the practice squad at the start of the regular season.
After Ayers was ultimately promoted to the Steelers 53-man roster late last season, he wound up playing 82 total offensive snaps and registered six receptions for 53 yards and a touchdown. He wasn’t, however, allowed to return any punts as wide receiver Antonio Brown continued to be the team’s best option when it came to that job.
With his rookie season now behind him and even though he did see playing time in 2016 as a wide receiver, Ayers now knows that his path to the initial 2017 53-man roster will likely entail him showing that he can be the team’s punt returner this season.
“The most important thing for me is trying to win the punt-returning job. That’s going to create opportunities,” Ayers said in a recent interview with Chris Mueller of The Beaver County Times.
On the surface, Ayers’ recent proclamation appears to be on point as the return of wide receiver Martavis Bryant from his 2016 year-long suspension combined with the Steelers selecting former USC wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster in the second-round of the 2017 NFL Draft has resulted in a very crowded position group room.
While the Steelers could ultimately wind up keeping six total wide receivers on their initial 2017 53-man roster, making the team as a potential sixth will certainly be a tough task for Ayers and thus any special teams contributions he can make will likely play a huge role in whether or not he succeeds.
Assuming Ayers will likely be given every opportunity to win the punt returner job throughout the remainder of the summer, he’s sure to have some competition for that role outside of the incumbent Brown as fellow wide receiver Eli Rogers might also be given shot in addition to cornerback Cameron Sutton, the first of the Steelers two third-round selections in the 2017 NFL Draft, as he had an impressive showing as a punt returner during his college career at Tennessee.
While Ayers obviously believes he can add value to the Steelers 2017 team as a punt returner, he’s still very confident in his abilities to potentially contribute on offense as a wide receiver if needed.
“I’m also a really good third-down guy, as well, Ayers told Mueller. “I feel like I bring a lot to the table.”
Ayers, by the way, announced earlier in the offseason that he had underwent hernia surgery after apparently playing through the injury during his rookie year.
“I didn’t even know it,” he said. “It hurt me when I declared a little bit. I thought I kept re-tweaking my groin. I carried it all the way over and played through it.”