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Risk vs. Reward: Is it worth it for the Steelers to put Antonio Brown on punt returns?

Is a possible injury worth the risk to have Antonio Brown returning punts?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Seeing Antonio Brown on punt returns has many Pittsburgh Steelers fans squirming. Fans do not want to see the best WR in the NFL injured during a 3-yard punt return. So many violent collisions occur on punt returns. Sure it's exciting to see a gargantuan game-changing punt return, but realistically, how often does that actually happen? Antonio Brown has brought back one punt return each of the past three seasons. Were these actually game-changing returns? Is it a concern that Brown's average per punt return has dropped yearly?

Brown accounted for 212 yards on 22 punts, in 2015, which place him ninth in the NFL for punt return average-9.6 yards. Steeler fans know that stats rarely tell the true story. Brown's lone punt return for a TD was in a blowout win against the Indianapolis Colts, to make it 45-10 late in the fourth quarter. Let's take this meaningless TD away during a meaningless quarter in the Colts game. AB's decent return average drops to a pedestrian 6.7 average yards per return. That's good enough for 21st in the NFL.

Brown had a much better season returning punts, than in 2015. He was eighth overall with a 10.6 yards per return average. The lone TD does inflate these numbers a bit. Without the return, his average drops to 8.55. Good enough for 12th overall. How important was his lone TD? It happened early in the Week 17 game against divisional rival, Cincinnati. The game would determine the divisional winner. Was it the difference maker? No. Did it cause a swing in momentum? No. The Bengals were driving down the field on their next drive, after the TD return, but the drive ended with a pick deep in Steeler territory. The Steelers won by 10, to clinch the division.

Brown was fourth in the league with an impressive 12.8 yards per return average. Purge the punt return for TD and his average drops to a respectable 11 yards per return, good enough for ninth in the NFL. Brown's TD pushed the score to 20-0, in what had all the earmarks of a blowout against Cincinnati. The Bengals did fire back. Cincy pulled within 10 with a TD at the five-minute mark in the fourth quarter. That was the closest they could come though.

Let's take a look at the top 10 returners in the past ten years by yards per return. (1.25 returns per game and 75 total for a career minimum are used to weed out statistical anomolies.)

Devin Hester
Julian Edelman
Roscoe Parish
Jeremy Ross
Ted Ginn
Dwayne Harris
B. J. Harris
Santana Moss
Az-Zahir Hakim
Josh Cribbs

What do these players have in common? They all spent the majority of their career as special-team specialists, not role players. Only Moss and Edelman have had seasons with 1,000-yards receiving. The members of this group have been dynamic punt returners, but their impact otherwise, is quite limited.

What is the primary makeup of most NFL special teams? These players are generally young backups trying to prove themselves to the coaching staff, players who are trying to show that they deserve more looks at their typical positions. Some of them are one play away from being replaced by someone on the practice squad. Really? Trust a handful of these types of players, blocking for a WR coming off a serious concussion in the 2015 playoffs?

Brown, on limited occasions, does change field position. So does the average punt returner in the NFL. Take away those TDs and their yardage, and AB turns into more of an average returner. Steeler Nation wants a young hungry player who is going to push the boundaries to make an impact as a returner to earn his spot on the roster.  Steeler fans still have the bitter taste of failure left by Jacoby Jones last year, and Dri Archer in years prior, but those aren't reasons to be pessimistic about prospective return men.

As a member of Steeler Nation, do you really want the most electrifying player in the NFL getting hurt on a 3-yard return? Or would you rather have a return specialist who is fighting for a spot on the roster, and therefore will not call for many fair catches and will take the hits for extra yards? Personally, I want a player returning punts like 2015 sixth-rounder Kaelin Clay for Baltimore. Clay had 23 returns, 10.8 yards per return, and only three fair catches.

The Steelers might have some viable candidates in 2016 with 7th round draft pick Demarcus Ayers and second year wideout Eli Rogers fighting for a roster spot, both as receivers and return men.

Happy father's day to my Stepfather Dan.  See you in a week 007.