The Pittsburgh Steelers are not a team that gives a whole lot of thought to what their plan is at the returner positions on special teams—or at least, that’s what it looks like. The two players they had lining up to return kickoffs in the season opener last year were two players that had not done it at all during the preseason, or for the team previously.
It’s not that they haven’t at least attempted to acquire candidates from a personnel standpoint. They have drafted a decent number of players in whom they saw value as returners, such as Chris Rainey, Dri Archer, and Demarcus Ayers, but none of them developed into that role. Archer probably had the longest stretch to try to take on that role, but it didn’t work.
The primary kick returner last season ended up being rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, but is he going to keep that job this year? Entering his second season, he is also stepping into a bigger role, looking at becoming a full-time starter at wide receiver after Martavis Bryant was traded to the Oakland Raiders.
Of course the Steelers have tried for years to get Antonio Brown off of punt returns, but he has always managed to find his way back there for whatever reason. Eli Rogers has begun each of the past two seasons in that role but had been demoted both times. After Brown’s injury in 2017, he did have success returning to that role, but he is currently not on the roster and recovering from a torn ACL as well.
Given the fact that the team hasn’t even managed to get Brown fully off of the punt return game, it’s certainly well within the realm of possibility that Smith-Schuster remains stuck in that role too. But it’s a pretty big risk to use both of your starting wide receivers as your kick returners as well, so this might cause them to approach the situation with more caution.
That would require finding another candidate to do the job though, and there isn’t a lot of experience on the roster, at least at the NFL level. Quadree Henderson is a rookie undrafted free agent who had success both as a kick returner and punt returner at the college level, including seven return touchdowns, but he has an uphill battle to make the roster.
A sure roster lock that could also be in the running is cornerback Cameron Sutton. As the fourth cornerback in the pecking order and the possibility that he gets passed over in favor of a safety as the dime backer, there’s a good chance he doesn’t have much responsibility on defense this year.
The Steelers don’t always rely on college experience to determine if they believe a player can be a returner at the NFL level. Their two rookie skill-position players, James Washington and Jaylen Samuels, could also be candidates to return jobs come this summer. Neither of them got much work as returners in college