One of the fundamental questions that we might often forget to ask when it comes to assembling a 53-man roster is just who is going to be filling key roles on special teams. Aside from the three specialist positions, virtually everybody else on a roster is going to be designated with a primary position on offense or defense, so special teams becomes viewed as secondary.
That is, of course, until a coverage unit allows a touchdown, or a returner muffs a kick and loses the ball. A wide assortment of things can go wrong when it comes to special teams that a lot of people simply don’t think about, generally because they don’t place much value on those jobs until something goes wrong.
The trade of Sammie Coates, though, has the Pittsburgh Steelers asking themselves some questions about special teams roles. Last season, he was the team’s primary kick returner, as well as one of the two primary gunners. Who will take over those roles now?
The retention of Darrius Heyward-Bey assures at least partially consistency among the gunners, but many of those who carried out the job last year—including one of their best, Shamarko Thomas—are no longer on the team. So let’s explore some options.
Perhaps the foremost candidate, in my estimation, would be first-year cornerback Mike Hilton. While the team might prefer a profile of a bigger player at the position, that has by no means been universally true, and there are ready citations of Thomas, Ross Ventrone, and Antwon Blake to support that.
Hilton spent a fair amount of time serving as a gunner in the first two preseason games and did very well. I am drawing from memory, but if I recall correctly, in the preseason opener against the Giants alone, he induced one fair catch, made a tackle, and split a pair of vice jammers on a third punt that allowed him to be the first man down the field when the returner muffed the punt, ultimately recovering the fumble.
So for me, Hilton might be candidate A, though if he is going to be moved into the starting lineup, that could complicate things, and they may want to use somebody with less of a key role, especially since this is his first season on a roster.
It’s probably rare that any positions other than wide receivers and defensive backs fill these roles, so I am going to focus my search in these areas, automatically dismissing any other starters. William Gay would not have the speed to excel in this role, but Coty Sensabaugh has played it, though I don’t recall him doing so during the preseason this year.
The newest Steeler, J.J. Wilcox, also served as a gunner at times for Dallas, so he could be an option. Two other interesting potential candidates are rookies JuJu Smith-Schuster and Brian Allen. While neither were used as gunners during the preseason, both saw a good amount of time as jammers, and the Steelers often have one player do both.
If none of these options above prove satisfactory, I would not be surprised to see a call-up from the practice squad. Both Marcus Tucker and Dashaun Phillips did well as gunners during the preseason this year for the Steelers.