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.