The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2021 season is over, already eliminated from the postseason after suffering a 42-21 loss at the hands of Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. They just barely made the postseason with a 9-7-1 record and a little help from their friends.
This is an offseason of major change, with the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger, the possible retirement of general manager Kevin Colbert, and the decisions about the futures of many important players to be made, such as Joe Haden, Stephon Tuitt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and others.
Aside from exploring their options at the quarterback position, the top global priority, once again, figures to be addressing the offensive line, which they did not do quite adequately enough a year ago. Dan Moore Jr. looks like he may have a future as a full-time starter, but Kendrick Green was clearly not ready. Chukwuma Okorafor is heading into free agency, as is Trai Turner.
These are the sorts of topics among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked. There is rarely a concrete answer, but this is your venue for exploring the topics we present through all their uncertainty.
Question: Who will return punts and kicks for the Steelers in 2022?
As you may have already seen by now, the Steelers lost their first unrestricted free agent of the offseason, with four-year veteran wide receiver and return specialist Ray-Ray McCloud agreeing to terms on a two-year contract with the San Francisco 49ers worth “up to” $10.4 million.
There are a lot of things McCloud is, and a lot of things he isn’t. But he has been the Steelers’ return man for the past two seasons, so that means that they have to find somebody else to do it—and that’s not nearly as simple as many tend to make it out to be. You don’t just throw somebody back there and say ‘go’. Just go back a few years and watch Markus Wheaton trying to return kicks.
Arguably the most realistic in-house candidate off the top of my head, and the role that could save his job, is setting Anthony McFarland on return duties. The irony is, of course, that he doesn’t have much of a return background at all. Yet it is something they’ve looked into for him, and, on paper anyway, it seems like a role he might take to, if he’s going to make it in the NFL at this point.
Another possibility is Steven Sims, who spent almost all of last season on the practice squad. But he was a successful kick returner for Washington in 2019 as a rookie, and he does have punt return experience as well. He’d have to make the roster first, of course, and returning kicks and punts would obviously help his case.
Beyond that, you’re not going to find many candidates on the roster. One player they could consider is Diontae Spencer, a former CFL standout they had in camp a few years ago. He has been the return man for the Denver Broncos, but was released after having a down year in 2022.
They will certainly be scouting for return men in the upcoming draft, and the departure of McCloud (and eventually James Washington, and quite likely JuJu Smith-Schuster, as well) means that wide receiver is an obvious draft need, anyway. Maybe even two of them at this point.