By Christopher DiMarino
Chris Rainey. What an addition. How many teams added a guy in the 5th round that had everyone talking? There is no doubt that Rainey is a high level talent, but is he a high risk high reward type of player? This is the big question on his shoulders. Eternally positive Pittsburgh Steelers fans automatically have him as a lock for punt and kick return duties and a dynamic big play threat on offense. Before we get rash, let\’s look into what must he do become the player we associate with these lofty expectations.
There have been discussions from the day he was drafted about how fast he is. Is he faster than Mike Wallace? Who cares? He can’t just be a speedster; he has to be able to offer much more to get on the field. His big skill in college was his agility. This helps him shed tacklers as well as squeeze out extra yards. For his success on field, he will need to continue to use this agility to avoid big time hits in the pros. An immediate concern I have is his ball protection. He was used to being able to avoid big hits in college but he likely will take some licks now at the next level. Nothing will slow down a young gun\’s snap count more than breaking a coach’s trust by turning the ball over. This extends to the return game as well as dropping passes when he receives contact after the catch.
My next question about him is how well can he return kicks and punts? I think punt return is a given as he was featured in that role in college. Pittsburgh\’s stifling defense will allow many opportunities for him to show his value there. Will a player last if he\’s just valuable on punt return? It depends on how well he does, but assuming he performs average in punt and kick return duties could be a big contributing factor. The new NFL has created a unique opportunity. We saw more touchbacks than ever before, but the few returns that happened seemed to be more volatile. The take away is that (not unlike Antonio Brown) if he fails to shine on the punt return, he will have to add something to the offense.
Dexter McCluster had a career year this past season for the Kansas City Chiefs. Running back instability and injuries certainly helped his cause, but it showed that Todd Haley had some level of confidence in him. It also means that Haley has experience in designing plays featuring undersized speedsters. Mike Tomlin might seem like a more conservative coach, but maybe he\’s just been lacking the correct personnel. A staple of the Bill Cowher era was trick/gadget plays that kept the defenses off balance. I think Rainey is one those new tools to use in that area.
Pure offensive snaps might take some time to include Rainey. He can line up as a running back but the defense knows that he will likely only be an outside running threat. He can eventually be groomed as a slot receiver, but I want to take it a step further. I think a very useful setup would be split backs. He and Isaac Redman can split to the sides of Ben Roethlisberger in a shotgun formation. This will keep the defense honest about inside or outside runs and give Roethlisberger the room to pre-snap audible to what seems appropriate based on what he sees from the defense. This will also open avenues for a lot of movement in the backfield and fakes to further confuse the defense. Rainey could even be motioned out to the slot in this setup to utilize his receiving ability and get him out into space.
The big problem with players being shoed in as a starter is that they are likely just as replaceable. Signing Marquis Maze as an undrafted free agent is a dual ability insurance property should he somehow crack the roster. He can do essentially everything Rainey does except rush the ball. I don\’t want to act like they are interchangeable but there are many athletes out there who can compete for these types of spots. Maze has the advantage of backing a position with many fewer perceived backups. If you don\’t look at Rainey as a running back, then the team has to justify him as a pure special teamer. That segregation can lead to issues of his value, so working into the offense will be key for him.
The main factor for Rainey is time. It will take time for him to be trusted in this offense and will need to earn his stay. Fumbles will ground him early, and he may need to make splash plays on returns to prove his value. Regardless, the Steelers clearly think he had enough value to draft. He might be the only 5th rounder that will be given many opportunities and even have plays developed for him. I think the longer he\’s kept on the roster the better chance he has to be successful. As with defensive players, I think they will take time and groom him. But if he struggles early with returns, there are many other options that can take his place.