As the calendar has finally hit the late-July date that signals the start of training camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers, we turn our attentions for the next few weeks to just that, training camp, the necessary respite for all football fans who have been the past six weeks wondering what to do with themselves—as least as far as the game goes.
With the start of training camp also comes the start of meaningful competition, and I’m not just talking about players getting to put on pads and smash into each other. There are battles to be won. Position battles, roster battles. Battles for starting jobs.
Before we get too deep into the swing of training camp, here is a quick series that provides a preview of some of the most significant battles that will have to be determined over the course of training camp and the preseason, though the regular season can always decide to change the results.
While there are not a lot of major roles up for grabs this summer, there is one, to my mind, that has perhaps not gotten as much attention as it deserves, and that is the role of punt returner, because frankly, it is not clear at all who will wind up in that role, and whether or not the labor will be divided as extensively as it was a year ago.
During the 2016 season, the two primary factors in the kick return game were wide receiver Sammie Coates, who had no prior experience serving as a kick returner, and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint…who returned three kicks, in college and the pros combined, prior to last season.
Between the two of them, the Steelers’ kick return game was not far from anemic, but there is a very realistic scenario in which neither of those players even end up back on the team’s 53-man roster in 2017. So, somebody is going to have to return those kicks.
They may have brought in a possible answer to that in Knile Davis, who despite not doing so in college did have success returning kicks at the NFL level, even if he did not show effectiveness in his opportunities doing so last season. Toussaint and Davis are likely competing for one roster spot.
But whoever wins that role will merely serve as the up back, and traditionally they generally take a back seat. If the Steelers have a returner that they are comfortable with, they would want to funnel the kicks in his direction.
Do they even have a legitimate option there? Coates will probably be given another run at it when he is activated from the PUP List. There is frankly not a ton of prior experience on the current 90-man roster among those who have returned kicks.
I really do not know what is going to happen in this department this year, and to be honest I don’t know if there is a good answer here. They will just go with the best options that they have, and I’m not even sure who the contenders might be outside of those previously named.