Normally I wouldn't get so excited over something like the returner battle, considering whenever it seems the Steelers try to replace Antonio Brown they have almost nobody close to capable fielding punts back there (COUGH Jacoby Jones). The Steelers love what Antonio Brown brings to the table as a punt returner, but they must feel that they should take him off those duties and find someone who specializes in returning so he doesn't risk the chance of getting injured on a return. No matter how this could be perceived by many, and what your opinion is on taking AB off punt return duties or not, if you have someone extremely capable back there who could replace him, absolutely go for it but if not, what's the point?
It's also not just Brown either that they could be replacing in the return game, as Markus Wheaton has been mostly consistent on kickoff returns (not so much punt returns) but with Wheaton moving up the depth chart and Martavis Bryant getting suspended, his importance on offense will become more important and putting both your number one and two receiver on return duties may not be the best idea.
These two individuals, Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers are competing for possibly both returner spots, and believe me when I say they're capable, but the question is whether they can bring the same big plays that Brown brings as a returner? Let's find out...
If there is anything I noticed when I plugged in film of all three of these guys, it's that they both have the same exact style, what do I mean by style though? By style I mean all three are able to not just be elusive but demonstrate excellent lateral agility with sharp, quick cuts.
One thing I want to make clear is that neither Rogers or Ayers possess the kind of straight line speed that Brown has. That is something Brown actually doesn't get enough credit for and I quite don't understand why when he can blow past defenders like this.
What they lack in straight line speed (at least in their college days) they make up for in their insane lateral agility and their smooth accelerating cuts. Watch Ayers on this play as he makes a plethora of defenders miss with his elusiveness while keeping his balance as he weaves and works his way through traffic.
These kind of moves and balance is what caught my eye about Ayers when I first watched him and is most likely what made the Steelers executives and coaches rate him as the top return man in the draft.
I actually found that Ayers and Rogers are both very similar to Jarvis Landry in the way that they both make up for their lack of straight line speed with excellent lateral quickness and while Rogers may not have been given very many opportunities at Louisville as either a return man or a receiver, you still see the same skill set from the get go in his limited opportunities.
Looks very similar doesn't it? They all have the sense of setting up their defenders and exploding out of their cuts (I know I sound like I'm beating a dead horse at this point).
All 3 of these guys are considered "undersized" for NFL WR standards and it seems like the best chance either Rogers or Ayers will make an impact is in the return game. Whether it be on the kickoff's or on punts, it's the same thing that got Antonio a spot on the roster and he wound up becoming one of the NFL's best. Not saying one of them is going to become AB but they have the potential to cause a ton of damage on special teams which could give them extra opportunities down the line on the offense.
In terms of the favorite at this point it's definitely Rogers as he has been given a ton of praise last season before he got hurt and it definitely has left a good impression on Kevin Colbert.
"We feel good about Sammie Coates," Colbert told Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "And we have a kid, Eli Rogers, who, prior to getting hurt in training camp, showed some promise."
Ayers has a step up in terms of production and experience on returns as he averaged 22.7 yards per kick return along with 9.6 yards a punt return in college. The most return yards Rogers ever got in a season was 112 on 11 punt returns, which demonstrates that he was again sparsely used at Louisville.
Rogers has also been taken under Antonio Brown's wing but so has Demarcus Ayers. Both of them are looking to absorb as much knowledge from the team leader Antonio Brown as they possibly can and what a better way to get ahead of your competition by learning from arguably the best in the game.
Eli Rogers has already seemed to have made an impression on Brown as he tweeted this out the same day Rogers was taken under his wing.
"Next man up" is an important part of the Steelers way and it would come to no surprise to me at all if one of these two wounds up becoming an important asset down the line. Whether it be Ayers or Rogers, both seem to be working extremely hard this offseason and that will go a long way to making the roster. Whoever ends up coming out on top, don't doubt the type of impact they could bring this season.