The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: One player this year will earn a roster spot almost entirely based on his return abilities.
Explanation: While the Steelers haven’t had an exclusive return man since Stefon Logan (excepting the abortive Jacoby Jones disaster in 2015), there have been plenty of times in which a player’s primary role on the team was to return either punts or kicks, if not both. There are a couple of candidates this year.
The two players who have worked the most returning kicks over the past two years are Ryan Switzer and Kerrith Whyte. Neither of them appear likely to have a chance to have much of an offensive role this year, though Switzer could be the team’s reserve slot receiver in the event of injury.
Diontae Johnson seems to have taken over the punt return job, but the Steelers could pull him off of that if they feel that he is too important to the offense, which is certainly not impossible, as there is a very good chance he is their number two receiver this year.
If Pittsburgh decides to keep six wide receivers or four running backs, Switzer and Whyte, respectively, have about as good a shot as any to be in those roles, and if they are, their primary function will be on special teams.
Based on their history, the Steelers have no qualms about creating instability in the kicking game, or about using players who don’t have a lot of experience doing it. That’s why Anthony McFarland has a good shot at being the kick returner this year, and it doesn’t hurt that Mike Tomlin will take Maryland coach Mike Locksley at his word that McFarland can do the job, even though he didn’t get the chance to in college.
If Johnson is the punt returner, then there isn’t much value in having a dedicated kick returner. The Steelers only returned 29 kicks last season, or one and a half per game, and frankly the blocking was never good enough to allow it to be effective. Both Switzer and Whyte averaged under 19 yards per return, and they are the most likely candidates to be returner-only players, so keeping them would be hard to justify with those results.