It won’t be long now before the Pittsburgh Steelers begin rolling into Latrobe, PA to make Saint Vincent College their home away from home for several weeks as the summer winds down. That is when we know that training camp has begun, and with it the first breaths of the 2018 NFL season.
Everything that we have experienced up until now, from the re-signings, releases, and restructures to the draft and all the way through OTAs and minicamp, has been but a preview, the setup, for what is to come next.
And so we too continue to preview what comes next in a series in which we will highlight several of the battles for roster spots and roles that we expect to see during our time observing in training camp and throughout the preseason.
Position: Kick Returners
Up for Grabs: All Job
In the Mix: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Antonio Brown, Eli Rogers, Cameron Sutton, Quadree Henderson, Marcus Tucker, Justin Thomas, etc.
Caution is due when discussing the Steelers’ training camp ‘battles’ for the jobs of return men can be rendered moot. The two players who started last season as the kick and punt returners combined for zero snaps in those roles during the training camp and preseason periods.
That has to be qualified by noting that the punt returner was Antonio Brown, who for obvious reasons is not going to get those reps in the preseason (it helps that he was a Pro Bowl returner in 2011). The other returner though was rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster, and that certainly seemed to be an odd choice.
This year, we are seeing second-year cornerback Cameron Sutton getting a lot of work in the return line so far, as are first-year or rookie wide receivers Justin Thomas and Quadree Henderson. The latter two would likely only make the team as returners, so they would really have to excel in that role to earn a roster spot.
As for Sutton, his biggest hurdle in landing a job would be the fact that Mike Tomlin seems to have a real bias against using defensive players for returner positions because they are not players who are normally accustomed to handling the ball, and thus practicing ball security—the most important job of a returner.
Still, at least so far it appears that Sutton is really being put in the running for a job. It’s not like he’s in danger of missing the cut, so he will be on the roster and dressing on Sundays.
Of course it’s just as likely that Brown and Smith-Schuster will be the returners when the Steelers open the regular season. In both cases, those are jobs that the players seem to want to have, even though both are starting wide receivers. In fact, Brown actually even got some return work yesterday. Might be the first time in three years he did that outside of a rep or two in training camp.