Over the span of recent days, the Pittsburgh Steelers have included among their pre-draft visitors two players in particular who are known to be return men. I can’t help but wonder what Ryan Switzer thinks of all this, and if he may grow concerned about his roster spot.
While Switzer is clearly liked by the team—and by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which is a big deal—he is not an indispensable player, and if the Steelers are looking at players among whom their most significant characteristics are their ability to contribute in the return game, then it’s fair to give thought to whether or not they believe Switzer is the answer at returner.
Which would be a big deal, because he is no better than fourth on the depth chart at wide receiver right now and could fall even further if the Steelers use a relatively high draft pick at the position, which most assume will be the case, perhaps on Day Two of the draft.
To be behind JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Donte Moncrief, and to have a rookie already locked into a roster spot, while throwing in another return man, is a bad recipe for a good night’s sleep, I would assume, if you’re Ryan Switzer, especially when you look at his return numbers from a season ago.
As a rookie with Dallas, he averaged 8.8 yards per punt return, which is far from fabulous, but not terrible either. He only averaged 8.4 yards per punt return last year, and he also muffed two punts. His kick return average plummeted from 25 yards even, including a touchdown, to just 20.2 with the Steelers, the worst in the league, with a long return of just 35 yards.
That’s not to say that it’s all on him, of course. We have covered the team’s issues in their blocking schemes for returns for years now. And the reality is that he was brought in very late in the proceedings. A return man has to have a certain rhythm with his blockers, and the unit has to work together to really excel. They didn’t have that opportunity in 2018.
Nevertheless, the reality is that the Steelers brought in Diontae Johnson and Kerrith Whyte for pre-draft visits recently. While White did not return punts in college, he did average 26.1 yards per kick return during his college career, including two touchdowns.
As for Johnson, he did return punts and kicks, and brought four of them back for scores. Though he only had 17 punt returns in his career, he averaged an astonishing 20.2 yards in doing so, though I suppose when you return two for touchdowns it can result in outliers. On the flip side, he returned 78 kicks and averaged 23.4 yards with two touchdowns, but 2018 was his best year, averaging just under 26 yards per return.
Johnson, a Toledo wide receiver, caught 135 passes in three years there for 2235 yards and 23 touchdowns. He is regarded as a mid-round pick and perhaps somebody the team might double dip on if the value is there.
If that should happen, Switzer should be concerned. I’m hoping not, but one can’t disregard the fact that they are looking at return men. Remember, when they traded for him last year, they said that they did so looking for an answer in the return game. He wasn’t the answer there last year, regardless of qualifiers regarding the outcome.