We’ve been down this road before with late-round or undrafted free agents. Surely they are going to be the answer to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ problems in the return game. Remember Reggie Dunn? Remember Demarcus Ayers? Chris Rainey is another name to throw out there as a former fifth-round draft pick.
Having a successful career as a returner in college or fitting the NFL bill as a return man is not enough. That doesn’t mean you’re going to succeed. The odds are against any one player actually panning out. But Pitt product Quadree Henderson, an undrafted free agent the team signed earlier this month, is hoping to beat the odds.
While he wasn’t much of an offensive contributor for the Panthers, with fewer than 150 offensive touches over the course of his college career, he does have seven return touchdowns in his back pocket. And no matter what Mike Tomlin says about him working on his craft at wide receiver, that is where they are really eying him.
Tomlin even acknowledged that while watching Henderson practice this weekend during the Steelers’ three-day rookie minicamp. As Kevin Gorman relates, the head coach shouted “you look like a return man! I like that” at the rookie at one point on a play that wound up with him finding his way into the end zone.
With the league seemingly making a last-ditch effort to save the kickoff by increasing its similarities to a punt, there remains value in adding a return man to the roster—especially a man who can return both kickoffs and punts, which Henderson did in college.
Rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster seemed to flash some potential in the kickoff return role late last season, finishing off the Cleveland Browns in the finale with a touchdown, the Steelers’ first on a kickoff since the second game of the 2010 season.
They had not had a legitimate return threat in that spot since Antonio Brown was still in that role in 2011, making the Pro Bowl that season as the first player in NFL history to record both 1000 return yards and 1000 receiving yards.
But like Brown, Smith-Schuster likely becomes too valuable this season to ‘risk’ performing that task, at least if they can help it. They have been trying to take Brown off punt returns for years now. Eli Rogers looked like he was improving there late last season as well, but he is not currently on the roster.
Henderson knows he has an opening, and he knows what his path is. “I see myself as a returner first, a receiver second”, he said during rookie minicamp. He needs to take a return or two to the house during the preseason. That is how return specialists make rosters. That is what got Stefon Logan his job way back when.