Time for some brutal honesty when it comes to our beloved Steelers. The Steelers kick return units were extremely underwhelming last season.
Outside of a single 89 yard kick return that somehow didn't go for a touchdown, mainly because the returner was embarrassingly caught from behind before he could reach pay dirt, the Steelers had nothing else that could be considered anything resembling a splash play. Unless you take the huge muffed punt against the Patriots into consideration, as the ultimate anti-splash play. That single miscue totally flipped momentum, and was arguably the biggest game changing moment of the Steelers season.
It's one thing to not have explosive kick return units, but it's another thing to have unreliable kick return units. To be fair to the returners, the Steelers special teams blocking on returns has been subpar for years. Not only are they unbelievably inept at creating open return lanes, they are just as likely to be penalized for some sort of illegal block or hold. They are far too often out of position, and found lacking in fundamentals and technique. That's sounds like a Danny Smith issue, but that's an article for another day.
The two primary kick returners last season for the Steelers were both back up wide receivers: Steven Sims and Gunner Olszewski. Sims had the aforementioned 89 yard kickoff return, and assumed full time returner duties immediately after Olszewski's devastating fumble. Nothing worse than a kick returner with ball security issues, possibly the fastest way to a seat on the bench, or a one way ticket out of town, especially on a Mike Tomlin coached team.
Steven Sims took his services elsewhere via free agency, and Gunner Olszewski is a perceived longshot on a reloaded WR depth chart.
The uncertainty at kick return specialist is concerning, but also represents a realistic path to a roster spot for some opportunistic fringe level players.
That appears destined to be a 4 man open competition in training camp. The likely participants appear to be Calvin Austin lll, Alfonzo Graham, Darius Hagans, and Gunner Olszewski. All four individuals possess a very unique skill set, and bring something different to the equation.
Calvin Austin III
Calvin Austin III is the speedster, and has to be considered the favorite to earn kick return responsibilities. In a perfect world, Austin would utilize his 4.32 speed to be a versatile big play weapon on offense, and a reliable explosive threat every time he touched the ball on returns. He has elite level speed, elusiveness, and acceleration.
The only real concern over Austin's abilities is his availability, after he missed the entirety of his rookie season due to a foot injury. Austin is the perfect in-house candidate at returner, if he proves durable enough at his diminutive stature. Austin is making the roster, whether he assumes kick return duties or not.
Graham is a UDFA longshot. He turned his rookie camp invite into a three year rookie contract. Graham turned in an impressive OTA and mini-camp performance. He possesses solid short area quickness and cutback abilities. Graham has excellent hands, making him a serious receiving threat out of the backfield. He showcased his competitiveness by challenging All Pro teammate Minkah Fitzpatrick in a mini-camp exercise. Although it turned out about how you would expect, it speaks volumes about his fearless nature.
Although Graham is a serious contender for the open RB3 position, his chances for a roster spot would improve immensely if he can win the kick return competition, or at least be the second option on the depth chart. Thankfully, Graham has experience returning kicks in college.
Hagans is the most recent addition to the competition, after the Steelers signed him as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Virginia State just a few weeks ago. Hagans may be last to the party, but he definitely isn't least. Hagans is thick, explosive, and powerful. He has a low center of gravity, and plenty of explosive attributes, starting with 4.47 speed.
Hagans will also be competing for the RB3 spot, and may be an even better fit for the Steelers new run heavy tendencies than Graham, who represents more of a change of pace style than the top two guys on the depth chart. Like Graham, Hagans has kick return experience on his collegiate resume. The final decision could come down to whether the Steelers want a scatback or a bruiser at RB3, because both young men are talented and versatile.
If I am being completely honest, I am actually surprised that Olszewski is still on the offseason roster. He offers next to nothing as a receiver, so his value is mainly as a return specialist. Tomlin and company lost complete faith in him as a returner after his devastating fumble. I thought the handwriting was on the wall heading into the offseason, but apparently the Steelers are giving the young man a second chance. Kind of sounds like something that the Steelers would do as an organization, especially if they respect his attitude and effort.
All 3 of the other kick return specialist candidates are more versatile than Olszewski, and potentially offer the Steelers offense some much needed explosive qualities. Barring a rash of serious injuries, I struggle to imagine a scenario where Gunner O makes the 53 man roster. To make matters even worse, Olszewski is more expensive than his younger competitors. Not an ideal combination, to say the least.
In conclusion, I expect Calvin Austin lll to take home the kick return competition, and whoever wins the RB3 battle between Graham and Hagans to serve as kick return specialist #2. But as always, may the best man win the job.