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: The Steelers should trust Anthony McFarland to return kicks this season if he shows any aptitude for it.
Explanation: The fourth-round draft pick returned a whopping one kick in his college career, which would be the least amount of experience as a returner that I can ever recall the Steelers trusting. But it’s not like they have had many intriguing options at the position in recent years, and he may be their best hope when all is said and done.
If you watch the way that McFarland runs the ball, including when he is given the ball in space on a reception, you know that he has a feel for the return game. He is both shifty and thoughtful, able to schedule moves to evade defenders by keeping his eyes out in front of him.
JuJu Smith-Schuster only had about a dozen or so kick returns during his college career, and then he didn’t even return a kick during the preseason of his rookie year, but he spent that entire season in the returner role, and he did quite a solid job of it, much better than Ryan Switzer over the past two years.
Switzer might be their primary option. The other player who returned kicks is Kerrithh Whyte, whose main incentive to even be rostered at this point would be if he is a returner, because his skill set offensively is redundant with McFarland’s.
While Whyte and McFarland both bring a speed dimension out of the backfield, however, what the former has that the latter lacks is NFL experience returning kicks. He also recorded 81 kick returns in college with a 26.1-yard average and two touchdowns. Compare that to one return and no offseason for a rookie.
Tomlin and most coaches wouldn’t trust a rookie under a lot of circumstances to be their returner. To do that without practically even getting a look at them as a returner is insane. To do that for a player who barely has any experience doing the job? That’s just irresponsible. If McFarland is returning kicks, it has to be because they’ve legitimately depleted any other alternative, because there’s no way he can be trusted by the time the season starts to handle that role. He barely even caught many passes in college.