2020 Training Camp Battles: Punt Returner

With our series breaking down each position on the roster completed, it’s time to turn our focus on what is going on within each position, and on the roster as a whole. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be taking a closer look at some of the roster battles that we expect to see unfold over the course of training camp as the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for the start of the 2020 season.

This is not a conventional offseason, of course, for obvious reasons, which is likely to play a role in many of these battles, some in ways that we might not foresee. Generally speaking, it should favor players who have greater experience, but there’s a reason these questions are left unanswered until we get on the field.

Position: Punt Returner

Up for Grabs: Starting Job

In the Mix: Diontae Johnson, Ryan Switzer, Anthony McFarland, Kerrith Whyte

Ryan Switzer has been the Steelers’ primary return man for the past two seasons, though he missed a big chunk of the 2019 season due to injury. Up to the point of his injury, however, he returned almost every kick and punt, even if then-rookie Diontae Johnson was getting a shot here and there.

Steelers fans have written off Switzer a long time ago, but the reality is that he still has a good shot of making the roster, and it’s pretty clear that the team views him in a higher light than does the fan base. As does Ben Roethlisberger.

When they originally acquired him via trade, the Steelers specified very clearly that their desire to pick him up was to serve as a returner primarily. Well, his return numbers in 2018 were not good. They were awful last year.

And then he got injured, Johnson got his shot to take over the punt return role, and through growing pains, emerged on the other side showing a lot of promise. A touchdown didn’t hurt his cause, and he ended up leading the league in punt return average among qualified players. I believe he was even named the second-team All-Pro punt returner as well.

The question with Johnson really is how big of an offensive role he is going to have this season. If he is going to be the number two receiver and log over 900 snaps, the Steelers may not want him returning punts. Antonio Brown was able to do it for years, granted, but he’s still a young player, and now he hasn’t had an offseason.

Then you have a couple of young players whose only role this year may be returning. Whyte returned kicks last year and did so extensively in college, but he hasn’t done punt return work. McFarland is a rookie with one kick return in his college career, but his college coach spoke highly of his return ability.

It’s unlikely that either of the young running backs will be chosen for the task. Some other candidate might emerge. But ultimately, this likely winds up being between Johnson and Switzer. If Switzer is on the roster, it will almost surely be because he is their return man, although it may be to return only kicks, leaving punts up to Johnson.

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