The Pittsburgh Steelers do have an incumbent return man, which is actually a somewhat rare position for them to be in, especially as it concerns the kick return responsibilities. Ray-Ray McCloud handled both jobs by the end of last season, though special teams coordinator Danny Smith is looking for options.
Will they find one on the defensive side of the ball? The odds are against it. The Steelers have only had one defender in the Mike Tomlin era as a primary return man for a season. They are becoming increasingly rare around the league as a whole.
“The art of a defensive back returning punts doesn’t really exist in our league anymore”, Smith admitted, speaking to reporters on Wednesday. “We don’t have many DBs that return kicks. I have evaluated one defensive back coming out of college in this draft that returned kicks”.
It’s not clear who that is. It certainly isn’t any of the defensive players that they drafted or signed as college free agents, though Lamont Wade did very little of it. “Everybody’s a backup”, Smith said. “Everybody works it, but never done it. I’m talking about guys who’ve done it, and there’s a difference. But we’ve collected a few options on that”.
The question that prompted the response specifically mentioned Wade and 2020 fourth-round running back Anthony McFarland in terms of potential return options. Both of them would fall under the heading of guys who’ve ‘worked it’, but haven’t done it. McFarland’s college coach praised his return ability—which he almost exclusively only did in practice. He returned one kick in college, albeit for 40 yards.
Cameron Sutton is one defender whose name has been thrown around in recent years—by fans, mind you—as a return option. He did record 46 punt returns at Tennessee, and with a healthy 14.3-yard average that included three touchdowns. But he’s going to be a full-time starting cornerback this season.
There were actually more defenders returning last year than there typically are. Among the most prolific kick returners last season were four defensive backs. Namely Danny Johnson in Washington, Brandon Wilson in Cincinnati, Corey Ballantine in New York (literally, both the Jets and Giants), and Joe Reed with the Chargers.
And what do they all have in common? They were all prolific as return men in college, as well. The Steelers really don’t have any good options on their roster, at all, outside of Sutton, who of course is out of the running. Nor, really, on offense, outside of Diontae Johnson and Kalen Ballage. Ballage returned 48 kicks at Arizona State.