If the Pittsburgh Steelers actually end up going into the season expecting rookie running back Anthony McFarland to function as their starting kick returner, then they may not end up as the only team in the AFC North with a starting return man who has little to no experience in that role prior to coming into the NFL in 2020.
During practice recently this week, Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh acknowledged that 2020 third-round rookie wide receiver Devin Duvernay is being given the opportunity to compete for a return role after they had their primary return man choose to opt out of the 2020 season.
“He’s never done that in college”, Harbaugh admits about his rookie wide receiver, “but he’s got good hands, he’s got a good feel for it. He’ll be part of the conversation”.
Other members who are part of the conversation are also new to the team, including another rookie wide receiver in James Proche, taken in the sixth round, who did return punts last year while as SMU. The team also recently signed running back Kenjon Barner, who has return ability. If he makes the roster, it would likely be exclusively as a return man, as they already have four other running backs who are pretty much roster locks.
The Ravens picked up De’Anthony Thomas midway through the 2019 season after having spent the rest of his career with the Kansas City Chiefs as a former fourth-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. He played in eight games for Baltimore, recording 10 kick returns, albeit for just 16.6 yards per return, and 93 yards on 13 punt returns. For his career with the Chiefs, he averaged 24.5 yards per kick return, however, and 8.8 yards per punt return. He did return three kicks for 71 yards in the Ravens’ playoff loss.
As for the Steelers, it seems as though they are likely to settle on Diontae Johnson continuing to function as their punt returner after taking over that role midway through his rookie season following Ryan Switzer’s injury, for which he ended up earning second-team All-Pro recognition.
The kick returner job remains more unclear, though it’s always possible that they could return to Switzer, whose numbers as a return man in his season and a half of work there in Pittsburgh have been poor.
McFarland is a player who is more or less a lock whether or not he contributes on special teams, so it’s not necessarily an either/or situation. But he is a running back with speed and elusiveness, and is strong for his size.
Despite this, like Duvernay, he has virtually no prior experience in working as a return man. And without a preseason to even work through it, it’s something of a gamble to enter the regular season with a return man who has never done the job before. If it’s the right player, however, it could be a risk worth taking.