Just this past week, Pittsburgh Steelers ST Coordinator Danny Smith spoke to Brian Batko of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, stating that the punt and kick return job for the Steelers is “wide open” and that there are a number of guys that can vie for the lead returner role in Pittsburgh.
Steelers Depot’s own Dave Bryan accurately broke down Smith’s comments in a recent article on the site, stating that while it may be true that there are several names on the roster that can compete for the role as primary kick and punt returner, the clear leader in the clubhouse is WR/KR/PR Gunner Olszewski. The Steelers inked Gunner to a two-year, 4.2-million-dollar deal after Ray-Ray McCloud signed with the 49ers this offseason. He was named a First-Team All-Pro in 2020 as a returner returning 20 punts for 346 yards (17.3 YPR) and a TD along with 18 kick returns for 418 yards (23.2 YPR) in 2020. His numbers dipped in 2021 (11.9 YPR on punts, 23.1 YPR on kicks), but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t effective.
Bryan also mentioned that while Olszewski is an accomplished returner, he also is a capable coverage man on kicks and punts, more than willing to throw his body on the line to make a tackle, having 10 career special teams tackles in the NFL to date with seven of those coming during the 2021 season. Given the fact that Olszewski is an accomplished four-phase special teams contributor, it will be hard to expect Danny Smith to part with such an asset to him on the field come final cut downs.
Still, there are several names that Bryan did mention that have the capability to push Olszewski for the lead PR/KR job, albeit not the same experience or proven production. One name that has been on the Steelers roster since last season that has the most proven production in the league is WR Steven Sims. Sims spent most of the 2021 on the team’s practice squad but has proven to be a capable returner when he was with the Washington Commanders. Since coming into the league in 2019, Sims has returned 30 punts for 186 yards (6.2 YPR) and 35 kickoffs for 861 yards (24.6 YPR) and a touchdown.
However, consistency and reliability have been issues for Sims as a returner, particularly when it comes to catching the ball in the air. There are several instances where the ball falls through his hands like the example above or where he drops it outright, leading to muffed kicks/punts where the return team either loses filed position like we see here on the first clip or turns the ball over entirely to the punt team, giving them the ball back with a chance to score.
Another receiver that spent much of the 2021 season on the Steelers practice squad with NFL return experience is Anthony Miller. Miller has returned five punts for 55 yards and eight kickoffs for 183 yards in his NFL career. It’s a limited sample size for the 27-year-old, but seeing 2022 as an opportunity to contribute for the team by any means necessary to earn a roster spot and get his career back on track, Miller has said that he will do everything he can just to make the team.
Another name that should receive some consideration is third-year RB Anthony McFarland Jr. While McFarland’s return experience is extremely limited, (one kick return for 40 yards at Maryland in 2019 and three kick returns for 73 yards (24.3 YPR) in 2021), he has shown juice in the open field, something that made Pittsburgh intrigued enough to take him in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft to bring a dimension of speed and burst to the RB room that they haven’t had in some time.
McFarland recently said that he is looking to put his name in the hat on special teams and fight for the starting kick return job, knowing fully well that he needs to stand out this season to make the roster. Thus, increasing his value not only on offense as a capable change-of-pace back behind Najee Harris, but also as a viable returner, could help him stick on the roster.
The name that probably has the best shot of unseating Olszewski from a talent and ability standpoint is rookie WR Calvin Austin III. Austin III is a dynamic, explosive athlete in open space that has made a name for himself as a threat after the catch. Those same skills used on short passes or reverses where he gets the ball in space translate to the return game, returning 29 punts for 323 yards (11.1 YPR) and two touchdowns. However, Austin never received any kick return opportunities at the college level, making that part of his game a true projection as he transitions to the pros.
Normally, the Steelers tend to keep rookies off their return units during their first season due to a trust factor that needs to be built up as well as allowing them to acclimate to their primary position on the field rather than having them try and dabble in return duties as well. Still, we have seen this trend be bucked before on occasion like back in 2017 when JuJu Smith-Schuster was a rookie and got nine kick returns for 240 yards including a return touchdown against the Browns in the regular season finale.
Antonio Brown operated as the team’s lead kick and punt returner as a rookie in 2010 before he broke out as a WR in Pittsburgh, returning 19 punts for 110 yards and 17 kickoffs for 397 yards and a TD.
In summary, the expectation should be that Gunner Olszewski should be in the driver’s seat when it comes to the lead KR/PR role for the 2022 season. Still, like Danny Smith mentioned, that are several names on the Steelers current 90-man roster that could challenge for one, or both of those roles this season depending on how they perform in training camp as well as if they can make a splash in the preseason.
Players like Steven Sims, Anthony Miller, and Anthony McFarland Jr. may have roster spots on the line in relation to if they can prove return capable, and Calvin Austin III could put himself on a similar track like fellow rookie WRs before him, making a name on special teams as he looks to climb the depth chart as a pass catcher in Pittsburgh.
What are your thoughts about the KR/PR job for the Pittsburgh Steelers? Do you think the “competition” is already over with Olszewski firmly entrenched as the lead man, or that one of the other names listed above have a chance at taking the job from him? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!