2020 Training Camp Battles: Kick 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: Kick Returner

Up for Grabs: Starting Job

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

Almost every year, the Steelers begin the season with a different kick returner from the previous season. 2019 was a rare exception, with Ryan Switzer starting the year as the kick returner after doing it all of last season, but he spent half the year on injured reserve.

After his injury, Tony Brooks-James, and then the man who replaced him and who is still on the 80-man roster, Kerrith Whyte, did the job, though neither were particularly successful from a statistical perspective. In their defense, they were young, rookie in-season additions to an already unproductive return unit, so their lack of success can’t be placed squarely on their shoulders.

Given the unusual nature of the offseason, it’s difficult to identify the full list of candidates here, and without a preseason, it may make the competition for the kick returner job rather conservative, possibly defaulting to keeping Switzer in that job.

Many are favoring putting rookie fourth-round running back Anthony McFarland there, even though he only has one return of any kind during his college career under his belt. His college head coach from last season insists that he can do it and did it in practice, but in-game reps are by far the most valuable proof of that.

Diontae Johnson emerged as the punt returner last year as the season wore on. He split duties with Switzer while he was healthy and took over the role entirely after his injury. While he had a limited number of returns, and some issues fielding punts, he ended up returning one for a touchdown and led the league in punt return average, being named a second-team All-Pro returner. But he doesn’t have a background returning kicks.

As for Whyte, he did a lot of kick returning in college, but he is competing for a potential fourth running back roster spot, which is not even guaranteed to be there, even if they finished the 2019 season with five halfbacks (but this was after fullback Roosevelt Nix was lost for the year). If he can impress as a kick returner in training camp, the job, and a roster spot, could be his. We also have to allow for the potential emergence of another candidate, given the lack of desirable or tested options.

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