Earlier in the off-season I wrote an article discussing the utility of Dri Archer, focusing on his ability to return kicks and punts. Archer is already an outstanding kick returner as evidenced in college, his blazing quick speed making him a breakaway threat whenever the opposing team's kicker is foolish enough to give him an opportunity.
Punt returning, however, is a different skill altogether. A punt returner is faced with a number of choices, whether to attempt a return, to fair catch or to let the ball bounce (depending on field position), all of which he must process in a considerably shorter space of time when compared to a kick-off before making a decision. In addition he must be aware of the proximity of the opposing team's gunners and factor it into his decision, all the while tracking the flight of the ball through the air.
Then of course he must have a sure pair of hands, not only to catch the football, but to ensure he doesn't fumble upon being hit on the ensuing return. As for the return itself, it's not all about straight-line speed and the ability to follow blockers as it is in returning a kick. A punt returner will almost certainly have to make one or two guys miss immediately upon catching the football, so agility, elusiveness and short area quickness are far more important skills to have than speed.
Dri Archer may very well have all these attributes, but as of yet he remains almost entirely untested as a punt returner, performing the task only six times in his four years at college.
In an ideal world Archer will perform both punt and kick returning duties in 2014, but if not the Steelers are left with a predicament.
They already have a pro bowl level returner in Antonio Brown, but returning punts or kicks is a risky business, exposing returners to potential big collisions and serious injury. Mike Tomlin had no qualms about using Brown for the role in 2013, but heading into 2014 Brown is by far the second most important player in the Steelers offense, and the linchpin of the passing game. The complete lack of experience and proven talent outside of Brown and veteran addition Lance Moore in the receiving corps put the Steelers in a precarious situation, even a niggling injury to Antonio Brown could spell doom for the offense and the season.
There is staunch support among some fans for removing Brown from punt returning duties, but the fact is if Dri Archer does not prove himself an above average punt returner, Antonio Brown is simply too good not to be utilised, regardless of the risk involved.
Per ESPN Brown fielded 55 punts in 2013, fair catching 23 and returning 32. He gained 409 yards and 1 touchdown, averaging 12.8 yards a return with his longest going for 67 yards.
To put that in some perspective, Brown finished third in yardage gained behind Golden Tate (585 yards) and Dexter McCluster (686 yards). The former had 19 more return attempts, whilst the latter had 26 more attempts. Both finished with an average yards per return below 12. Fourth place Julian Edelman finished with 374 yards from 35 attempts, 3 more than Brown.
No other player in the NFL who attempted 30 or more punt returns had an average yards per return of 12 or over, the closest was McCluster at 11.8, a full yard less than Brown.
Only eight players in the league last year had more than one punt return over 40 yards. Antonio Brown had five; the next closest player had three.
The stats clearly show that Brown was the most reliably explosive punt returner in the NFL in 2013, for which he was duly accorded a pro bowl berth.
Given how incredibly important field position is, and how an explosive special teams play can turn a game on its head, it is difficult to argue against Brown fielding punts again in 2014. Even if Dri Archer is a competent punt returner, would he be able to replicate Brown's success? Perhaps, but that would be expecting a great deal from an inexperienced rookie.
The question is, of course, does the risk outweigh the reward? That is what Mike Tomlin gets paid to decide, but if Brown does get injured during a special teams play rest assured the backlash will be severe.
2013 showed that if called upon Brown will perform return duties, and perform them well. However his comparatively high rate of fair catching suggests he is not willing to put himself at undue risk. Brown had the fourth highest number of fair catches of any returner in the league with 23. McCluster and Tate, both of whom fielded 20 more or more punts than Brown had 11 and 14 fair catches respectively.
Keeping himself out of harm's way was a smart thing to do considering how valuable he is as a receiver, and perhaps Mike Tomlin gave him specific instructions not to take any unnecessary risk. Julian Edelman, a receiver who similarly played a huge role in the Patriots passing game last season also had 23 fair catches, and the situation may be comparable.
From memory alone, there certainly seemed to be occasions where Brown had just enough space to attempt a return, but opted instead not to take the risk and fair catch. It's that risk/reward factor again, but who knows what could have happened if he took those slightly riskier opportunities.
Ideally, Dri Archer will be able to take over the reins of return man, both for kicking and punting. If not, it seems likely that Brown will once again be returning punts in 2014. There is currently no one else on the Steelers roster close to being capable of providing the same threat as Brown. Of course a player like LaRod Stephens-Howling or someone similar could be signed prior to the start of the season, but it would be very unlikely they would be able to match Brown's returning prowess.
Steelers fans may need to get comfortable seeing Brown field punts on special teams again in 2014. If he continues to fair catch at such a high rate he will continue to reduce the risk inherent in the role, but all it can take is one hit on one return to wreak havoc on the Steelers 2014 plans.