Here we are again: Another draft has come and gone, and the Steelers have selected a little guy who can do a lot of different things on offense, but could really make a name for himself as a return man on special teams.
Four years ago, it was Chris Rainey, the 5'9", 180 pound running back out of Florida that Pittsburgh nabbed in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Rainey was fast in college (4.4 speed) and fairly productive. People were excited about what he would be able to do out of the backfield -- both as a runner and receiver -- and as a return man. Unfortunately for the youngster, he only posted 102 rushing yards on 26 attempts and another 60 receiving yards on 14 catches. As for special teams, Rainey did a decent job returning kicks, averaging 26.4 yards a pop. But on punts? Like most Steelers in recent years not named Antonio Brown, Rainey was a non-factor, totaling 16 yards on just three returns.
Sadly, after an underwhelming rookie year, Rainey was let go shortly after the regular season, following a domestic dispute involving his girlfriend.
Fast-forward two years. The Steelers selected Dri Archer out of Kent State in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft. At 5'8" and 175 pounds, Archer was even smaller than Rainey. However, with sub-4.3 speed (at least at the Combine), Archer possessed at least one attribute that could make him a difference-maker in the NFL -- as long as he was in open space. Like Rainey, Archer was productive in college and just an all-around weapon. Only problem was, that open space he needed to find himself in, that pretty much never happened. In a little under two seasons, Archer barely showed a pulse on offense, totaling 63 yards. As for the return game (a place he probably needed to excel more than anywhere else), he was pedestrian overall and way less than that returning punts (just one attempt for two yards).
Because of Archer's less than stellar body-of-work in the return game, he was released last November, and Jacoby Jones, a great return specialist at one point during his career, was signed to take his place. Sadly, it was quickly discovered that Jones' good return skills weren't available at the point of his career when the Steelers really needed them, as he recorded just 19 yards on six punt returns after coming to Pittsburgh.
As you might have guessed, after averaging just over three yards per punt, Jones is no longer a Steeler.
With Rainey, Archer and Jones no longer around, I guess it's safe to assume head coach Mike Tomlin won't be living in his fears again next season and will allow Brown, one of his most-prized and valuable offensive charges, to return punts. I have no problem with that. After all, Brown averaged nearly 10 yards a return and scored the team's only touchdown on the season, when he went 71 yards against the Colts on Sunday Night Football--and then proceeded to assault the goalpost.
If Brown doesn't return punts in 2016, who will?
I don't know, maybe a little running back/receiver/return specialist out of Houston that Pittsburgh just selected in the seventh round of the 2016 NFL Draft? That would be Demarcus Ayers who, at 5'11 and 190 pounds, is a little bigger than both Rainey and Archer, but with a 4.7 40 time, is a little slower.
The 1,838 yards from scrimmage Ayers accumulated during his college career are a bit enticing, but who are we kidding? With so many offensive weapons at Todd Haley's disposal (even without Martavis Bryant), how much of an impact could Ayers make in his rookie season--if he even makes the team?
Much like Vince Papale found out in the movie Invincible, Ayers route to an NFL career will have to be on special teams -- and most likely as a returner. With regards to punt returns, Ayers averaged 9.6 yards over his final two seasons in college -- including 10.5 last year.
Will that translate to the NFL? Will Ayers succeed where so many others not named Antonio Brown have failed in recent years?
It remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: The canvas is clean for Demarcus Ayers.
Sure, Antonio Brown can do it all, and as he found out last year, playing in the NFL is dangerous, no matter if you're returning a punt or going over the middle to catch a high pass. But if some rookie can come along and take at least the punt returns duties off of Brown's hands, he'll surely find himself employed by the Pittsburgh Steelers next year.