Demarcus Ayers The Latest Attempt At Finding Return Man

While the Pittsburgh Steelers spent much of the Saturday portion of the 2016 NFL Draft twiddling their thumbs in light of a nearly 100-selection gap between their first and second selections of the day, the late portions of the late rounds got busy again for the Steelers, with three selections in a 27-pick span.

One of those three selections was used to invest specifically in a punt returner, as evidenced by the fact that it was special teams coach Danny Smith who walked into the press room to address the media after the pick was made to discuss Houston wide receiver Demarcus Ayers.

Smith, the veteran special teams coach who has been with the Steelers for the last several years, even showed the gathered media his own list of the top prospects in the draft for the role of punt returner, and Ayers was on the top of the list, whom Pittsburgh acquired with their first of two seventh-round selections, 229th overall.

The 5’9”, 182-pound wide receiver was a fairly prolific returner throughout his collegiate career, totaling over 100 returns between kickoffs and punts over a three-year span, with him focusing solely on the former his freshman season and having fully converted over to the latter by his junior year.

At Houston, Ayers returned 71 kickoffs for 1613 yards, a 22.7-yard average, including one touchdown. He averaged 27.6 yards per return his freshman year, but just 17.4 yards per return his sophomore season, during which he remained a limited offensive contributor.

His junior year, however, was another matter, and it came with a heavy heart after suffering personal tragedies in the offseason. That, and also fueled by a coaching change, nearly had Ayers quitting the team, but he eventually bought in and began to blossom.

Now fully committed to returning punts—he returned five punts for just 22 yards in 2014—Ayers had 28 punt returns on the season for a healthy 10.5-yard average, including one that he returned for a touchdown. I don’t know the full story of his 2014 season, but he showed well as a kick returner in 2013 and as a punt returner in 2015.

But he also grew as a wide receiver in 2015, recording 97 receptions as he embraced the slot role in the offense, coming up with six touchdowns while gaining 1221 yards. He also carried the ball 26 times for 147 yards and a touchdown, scoring eight touchdowns on the season in total.

Of course, it may be a while, if ever, before the Steelers give him a serious look at wide receiver. Smith was pretty clear about where his interest lay with Ayers, whom he described as a punt returner.

But he should have a good opportunity to compete for a spot that the Steelers have tried to fill for years now, most recently with Dri Archer in 2014 and Jacoby Jones in 2015. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but the team felt it was worth the late investment, especially given that he declared early.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi
Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • Phil Brenneman II

    I can’t tell you how glad I am there wasn’t another attempt made for a return man in the 3rd round lol. The Steelers wised up and waited until late to take what I view as more of a luxury pick and I definitely wouldn’t complain about that. I think you take some chances in the 6th and 7th that you shouldn’t take in the earlier rounds.

    Hopefully we finally found our answer. On a side note, I would love for Smith to be asked why Todman was never given a shot last year.

  • Applebite

    …Come on Eli, step up and take command of return man.

  • Paddy

    Who?

  • Paddy

    Really strange pick, not a great returner

  • Tom Jackson

    Well you can like him however you like but it definitly isn’t hard to understand. Steelers had him rated as their best punt returner in the draft. They finally want to make AB stop doing it and there you go. So not that strange at all.

  • Tom Jackson

    Eli Rogers. 2nd year WR out of Louisville. Had a good start to camp but had something with his foot that put him out for the year. Is return capable and in the mix for the return job this season.

  • Jersey Mike

    The kid has some moves. He might not be an elite returner but he was good enough to be rated #1 on the teams board like Tom said. And for a 7th round investment much less riskier then Archer.

  • SnoopDogg123

    Within the next 2 years, there will not be a kick off anyways. There’s serious discussion about implementing a rule to either on-side kick or spot the ball at the 20 yard line. If you’re going to draft a “Return Specialist”, he better be a superb Punt Returner & be able to contribute in some capacity to your offense or defense.

  • Paddy

    The team doesn’t acknowledge his existence

  • Jonas

    Oh yes? They kept an undrafted, injured receiver on the roster the whole year.

  • Tom Jackson

    What are you talking about? You didn’t even seem to know the guy. You just had to read training camp reports for that last season. He was a big story early on tbh.

    And btw Danny Smith was just asked about him for a potential returner role yesterday during his little presser and he said Eli’s in the mix. So it’s not really insider work to know the guy.

  • SteelersDepot

    Top punt returner on the Steelers board. Are you judging him by his 40 time?

  • vasteeler

    Maybe Fitz can help in the return game, he showed flashes of shiftiness, pretty sure he has a chip on his shoulder after coughing up the playoff game

  • SteelersDepot

    Danny talked about him a little on Saturday

  • Michael Conrad

    Well don’t know if he has a chance but the one thing I saw was he did not go down at first contact he is able to take a hit and keep the return going. He seems to set up his blocks well and has a controlled running style not getting to a place before the block is made. I think if the return team is coached up to set his blocks up he may have a chance.

  • Shannon Stephenson

    He was a kid I liked in the later rounds as a ST guy so I can say I liked the pick. Overall happy with the draft even with the 1st round reach. Went down position wise pretty much how I had predicted except the players were different.

  • TrappenWeisseGuy ;

    Amen, I think it’s about trying to minimize the risk to AB as much as anything. Kickoff returns are going the way of the dodo.

  • vasteeler

    I think he was the most consistent which is why most see him as the top returner

  • vasteeler

    I think most know of Rogers’ potential and he has a realistic shot to crack the roster this year, may not be able to hide him on PS this year

  • RickM

    I don’t know if it will work out, but taking a return guy in the 7th round seems like a smart decision. Hopefully he can finally prove to be the long-term answer.

  • taztroy43

    I think the steelers tried to trade into the 5th to draft wr/kr j. Grant

  • JB Burgess

    The tape doesn’t lie. Ayers is baller. And has good strength and balance.

  • John21

    Great point! Todman demonstrated in Jax that he was capable yet he never got a chance- a waste of a resource. He even ran well when he played- something Steelers did not like @ him ???
    Im never a fan of these reaches for Return guys. Draft someone who is a player that has return skills- no wasted roster spots

  • Matt Manzo

    He might not be blazing fast but he looks pretty shifty!

  • PittsburghSports

    I love the emphasis Tomlin uses on finding returners. Not just drafting other positions and making them returners. Drafting a guy or signing a guy specifically for the return game. I’m not sure about this guy though lol. Top returner on Danny Smith’s board? WTF? Maybe that’s why our return game has sucked under him. His units are always good on coverage, but he’s one lucky coach to have an All-Pro player like AB still risking his body returning punts.