On A Roster Filled With Holes, This Position May Be The Biggest

Many followers of the Pittsburgh Steelers have voiced their concerns over the perceived lack of depth permeating the roster this offseason, particularly at positions such as defensive end, running back, and wide receiver.

But there’s a far more glaring hole that still needs to be addressed at some point, and that is the role of kick returner.

Outside of a couple of squib kicks here and there that ended up being fielded by a tight end or a defensive end, nearly all of the kickoff returns from last season are either currently not on the roster or already with another team.

Last season, the kick return duty initially fell upon the shoulders of LaRod Stephens-Howling, who returned one kick in the season opener for 25 yards before tearing his ACL and ending his season.

Subsequently, Felix Jones, who had been serving as the up back, inherited the primary role of kick returner, and though he did only a pedestrian job of it on the whole, he accounted for more than half of their total returns.

On 22 returned kickoffs, Jones gained a total of 492 yards with a long of 42 for an average of 22.4 yards per return. Jones is currently a free agent, and the Steelers are looking to replace him rather than re-sign him.

Jonathan Dwyer, who inherited the up back role from Jones when he was forced into return duties, was the recipient of four kickoffs and averaged 22.5 yards for 90 yards total, but those scenarios were the result of short kicks designed to eliminate long returns. Dwyer has signed with the Arizona Cardinals.

The other major chunk of returns came from wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who returned 11 kickoffs during the course of the season, and nearly broke one for a game-winning touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens.

On his 11 returns, Sanders gained 268 yards for a very healthy 24.4-yard average, with a long of 46 yards. As with Dwyer, Sanders has already signed with another team, having joined the Denver Broncos.

The only other player to intentionally return any kickoffs was Markus Wheaton, and this is an activity that the young receiver has admitted is not a strong element of his game. His two returns came in the opening game following Stephens-Howling’s injury, and he totaled just 37 yards for an 18.5-yard average.

In other words, it’s not likely that the Steelers will return to him to return kickoffs. And they certainly can’t go backwards and burden Antonio Brown with more duties. So how will they find a kickoff returner?

The Steelers will be taking a look at running back LeGarrette Blount at the end of the week. He is a big, bruising back without superior breakaway speed, yet he had surprising success as a returner last season. On 17 kickoff returns, he totaled 494 yards, including and 83-yard return, for an average return of 29.1 yards. Should they sign him, he could be an option.

Or the solution could come through the draft. Justin Gilbert, arguably the top cornerback in the draft, is also an accomplished returner, averaging 26.3 yards per return in his college career with six touchdowns. As rookies, especially defensive rookies, special teams plays a vital role in the early stages of their careers, and is a factor that teams must take into consideration.

Of course, there is any number of players in the draft the Steelers could take who possess return abilities. It certainly doesn’t have to come in the first round. And it doesn’t have to come through the draft, either. But it does have to come at some point, because they can’t afford another season without a proper return man.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • Callentown

    Boy, here’s hoping the lions take Evans and Gilbert falls. Solves two big holes in one fell swoop!

  • Ben Taylor

    I am a fan of Gilbert myself, but what about Beckham Jr. at 15? He would be a tremendous asset to the return game.

  • Josh

    How many kicks even get returned? I say it’s far from the biggest hole this team faces.

  • pittsburghjoe

    Nope….Too high for Beckham. Too many good WR’s in this years draft. The only WR at 15 is Evans, assuming Watkins is gone. If Gilbert is not there, I would love to trade back. But, that is easier said then done. I think NYJ may be a trade partner, especially if Evans is there. I think they would give up the farm for him.

  • Jason

    I don’t really want to mess with the tradition of slow shiftless running backs like Najeh Davenport, Gary Russell, and Felix Jones returning kicks. I like to grab a beer and use the restroom during kickoffs knowing there is no possibility of a TD return. Why we let Sanders sit and watch Jones return kicks last year is baffling to me. Besides Stefan Logan when was the last time we had a consistent threat at KR? Maybe Allen Rossum 7 or 8 years ago?

  • tcirish53@gmail.com

    Josh, great point – to consider kick returner as critical in this day and age is ridiculous! For God’s sake, there has been talk of GETTING RID OF the kick off for safety reasons!!
    When I saw this article title I thought he was referring to NT. Love Steve McClendon, but he is a DE, NOT A NT!!
    We draft a true NT, shift McClendon to DE, problem solved.
    Talk about solving two problems with one pick!!

  • 20Stoney

    Given the choice, I’ll take a good DB and let some Felix Jones type return kicks any day.

  • dgh57

    I kept waiting for more of Sanders as a kickoff returner but to no avail. I’m thinking Sanders will get his chance in Denver now that Trindon Holiday has moved on and will probably have pretty good success while doing it which in turn won’t sit to well for me.

  • Eric MacLaurin

    Kick return is a late round or udfa issue sort of like a punter. It would be foolish to use a first round choice there due to risk.

  • Callentown

    I’ve been saying this for awhile now about fixing the Dline. Seems the consensus is that there is not a great NT to choose from.

  • Carlos

    We do struggle to get good field position

  • Steelers12328882

    I don’t the the Steelers value the return game much for this to be even close to the biggest hole on the roster. Just look at our last Super Bowl win. We had Gary Russell and Carey Davis as kick returners lol.

  • Ben Taylor

    Fair enough. I would love to make that trade happen with the Jets and hopefully get their 3rd, Jets could even move ahead of Steelers to draft a cornerback since they neglected the position throughout free agency,

  • Matt Manzo

    I think the only prospect is JEllis. And he’s not a sure thing in the 4/5th rounds.

  • Matt Manzo

    Did Justin Brown return kicks in college, or just punts?
    And I thought I saw some kick returns in Moores highlights?

  • tim

    True but STILL….its not glaring UNTIL gameday…THEN its GLARING….! And our ST have not been all that good the last few years…..our return game has been middle of the road though….BUT we CAN’T afford to go backwards in ANY other department now CAN WE??

  • tcirish53@gmail.com

    Callen, there are 3 NTs that would seem to be more than capable; great, we would have to wait and see.
    McCullers from Tennessee, Ellis from La Tech, and Carrethers from Ark State. Check them out on a site like Drafttek where you can read their bios.
    McCullers is 357 # and played in the SEC. Seems to me he can probably play, plus combined with moving Mc to DE and it’s really a no-brainer in my mind, PROVIDED that LeBeau lets him start as a rookie (a bit PROVIDED, granted but NT is one place where the complexity really doesn’t come into play – just stand your ground and occupy the OL players in front of you).

  • tim

    And Logan was just steady, not quite a Neon Deion type of KR BUT he didnt fumble!

  • Jason

    True but at least the speed was there and therefore the threat of a decent return. Can you imagine the coverage team breakdown that would have to happen for Felix Jones to score on a kick return?

  • Richie

    Noel Devine

  • ApexSteel


  • Jason

    More career Super Bowl Td’s than Jerome Betts. LOL

  • PA2AK

    If it is/isn’t filled by camp…open tryout for everyone there. Make the kickers do something and see who rises to the top in returning kicks. Would rather focus on D so we could maybe get a few three and outs and win the field position battle that way. That and limit the number of kick offs to begin with.

  • PA2AK

    And how long to kick return specialists last? If they don’t come by way of a guy that makes the team because he can do other things or by way of an undrafted guy…isn’t it kind of a waste to focus on it until you find out whose going to be part of your 53? Just isn’t a major priority in my mind.

  • RMSteeler

    Wouldn’t use my #1 pick as KR. See LRH.

  • frednash

    Definitely a non issue

    Kickoff returns are frequent only in bad weather

    Let ab do it

    The opposition will give us the 20 everytime

    Or their toast!

  • AndyR34

    Nah…their set…they drafted Dee Milliner with their no.1 last year. I believe Milliner was last year’s ‘can’t miss’ CB. LOL!

  • Callentown

    I really hope our scouts have one picked out and that we go get him. thx tcirish!

  • Superdriller316

    I don’t know what they have to do to get his rights, but after posting 4.25 40 at WVU pro day. Worth a look at.

  • Reg Sayhitodabadguy Hunt

    F-it get rainey back i know he have issues off field but he was a beast in preseason

  • AzheDraven

    Cant Ike Taylor do that? I think he used to. Ok maybe not, but some rookie could do that. Maybe try to get one from last year, that one who got caught on the wrong endzone, Reggie Dunn, IDK if he has signed with another team since then, but i believed that kid had potential.
    Didnt they have another one that returned kicks at the PS? Devon Wylie or something like that?

  • Glenn Baldwin

    Had the same thought about Reggie Dunn. Is there room for a kick return specialist who wouldn’t get any/much play as a regular down player?

    Anybody who saw Dunn’s return highlight reel on youtube last year had to be a little disappointed when he didn’t make the 53.

  • steelster

    and jacoby jones was available.

  • Josh

    Couldn’t you make the argument that a punt returner is more important than kick returner? Not because AB is bad (obviously), but you DON’T want him at risk for injury. Especially since he’s even more of a #1 now.

  • blackandgoldBullion

    The return game is important. You may think when the weather is warm and they’re not getting returned, big deal. But in December, in a tight important game, it could be the difference. Now the problem for the Steelers is that they require lots of depth with all the injuries in the last few years and because the quality of the depth has slid. Just look to last year, when Dunn was there and they had to let him go, because it’s a luxury they cannot afford.

    The answer is to have a 4th WR or RB or CB that can backup while providing that potential big play on a KR. That’s the way to go. LSH was going to be that guy last year, and if they think he can’t do it this year, then they should be looking at a RB in the later rounds that can be a 3rd down back and also KR. Lots of close games and ST is important.