Would being a prolific returner justify Dri Archer's draft position?

USA TODAY Sports

With their 3rd round compensatory pick the Steelers drafted Dri Archer, the blazing fast running back with a diminutive stature. Many are wondering whether a player of his size can be productive in an NFL offense. Would being a great kick and punt returner be enough?

Its rare when one seemingly innocuous word is the catalyst for writing an article, but here we are.

This is a quote from Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, speaking about recent 3rd round draft selection and All-American speed demon Dri Archer.

Dri Archer‘s speed is unique, but that is only part of his ability. He was also highly productive, not only as a runner, but as a kick returner and potentially a punt returner

That's not a pleasant word to me, not one bit. I lied at the top, in actual fact it was the word "potentially" in that quote, and this ESPN article published today that's got me thinking...can Dri Archer make his nest in Pittsburgh simply out of returning kicks and punts? Can that ever be enough justify his selection?

I was the staunchest supporter, at least in my own head anyway, of the Steelers grabbing a guy in the draft who possessed the tools to be a real threat on every kick and punt return.  We've been down this road before with Reggie Dunn, but field position and the chance of a game breaking return (see Percy Harvin in the Super Bowl) are just too important a factor in a game to stick a pedestrian guy back there (see Felix Jones in all of 2013).

Granted I wasn't expecting that guy to be drafted in the third, nor was I particularly thrilled about it but you know what they say, never look a gift cheetah in the mouth.

To answer the question posed above, even if Archer never finds his niche in the offense but proceeds to be a serious threat as a punt and kick returner, then yes he can absolutely start gathering twigs for his nest in my book. A shortened field and the potential for a touchdown every time he fields the ball is more than enough value.

Very few people, if any, will ever be as productive as Devin Hester but if you can get someone even close to that level then you've done your job well. 13 of Hester's record tying 19 return TD's came off punt returns by the way.

As for Archer, there's no doubting he's got the tools for kickoff returns. I think it was Daniel Jeremiah that said during the draft that if you want some entertainment, get some popcorn and put on a viedo of Archer's kick return highlights. And he's right, the kid can flat out return a kick. In 2012  he averaged  36 yards a return on 16 returns, scoring 3 touchdowns.

This an excerpt from the ESPN piece published today, linked above.

Kent State coach Paul Haynes and Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey shared a memory -- and a laugh -- recently when they recalled Dri Archer's 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown last season in a game between the Mid-American Conference rivals. 

"Dri went down his sideline and (Carey) said he was going so fast and he was just thinking, ‘We are so stupid for kicking to this guy,' " Haynes said. "They were the only team that kicked deep to us. Everybody else pooched."

Archer was so good teams quite literally just stopped kicking him the ball. Kent State stopped practicing kickoff returns because there just wasn't any point, such was the fear and respect opposing teams held for Archer's ability. In 10 games last year he only managed two return attempts, although those two went for 128 yards and 1 touchdown

Dri Archer can and will be returning kicks for the Steelers next season. Will he be returning punts though? "Potentially".

Through four years at college Archer attempted 6 punt returns, garnering a total of 8 yards. That's not promising.

While this is not a definitive indicator that Archer is incapable of returning punts, it is not an indicator that he can either. That coupled with Colbert's lukewarm reference to punt returning, and it seems to me that it's a little up in the air whether Archer will be the punt returner.

To answer the question posed above in a different light, even if Archer never finds his niche in the offense but proceeds to be a serious threat as a kick returner only, then I would say no he probably shouldn't get too comfy in that nest.

Kick returning is great, and its a great skill to bring, but on its own its not enough. When the NFL moved kick-offs up to the 35 yard line in 2011 they made sure of that. The year the NFL introduced the new rule touchbacks rose by almost 30% , from 18% to 45% of the time. Kickers are only getting better, with stronger legs. Removing the threat of a lethal returner is getting easier and easier for kickers, just kick it through the goal posts.

That's not quite so simple for punters.

In the end, a 3rd round selection has placed a great deal of expectation on Dri Archer's short, but not to be confused with small shoulders. Personally, if we got a guy who can be one of the best in the league in both punt and kick returning, I'll consider that more than a great investment.

But he'l have to be the whole return package. Otherwise, he'd best start practicing his route running.

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