The Steelers have had some exciting and productive return men in recent years. Antwann Randle El was always a threat as a return man during his days with the Steelers. Allen Rossum had a decent year returning in 2007 and even returned an opening kick for a touchdown against Kansas City. Stefan Logan, who the Steelers signed from the Canadian Football League, provided some excitement during the 2009 season. In 2011 Antonio Brown gave a strong performance as the teams primary return man. In fact, Brown became the first player in NFL history to have 1,000 yard receiving as well as 1,000 yards returning; his jersey now hangs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Heading into the 2012 season the return position is an unknown.
Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown are both more-than-capable return men, however, the coaches want them to focus on receiving. With Mike Wallace’s holdout Brown is the top receiver and they need him to focus on being Roethlisberger’s top target. Sanders’ injury issues have caused him to miss a lot of time during his first two seasons. The Steelers want Brown and Sanders to remain healthy (especially with the lack of depth at receiver) and having them return kicks makes them much more injury prone.
So, with Sanders and Brown out as options for the return man position, who are the candidates to return kicks in 2012?
Chris Rainey – Rainey, the Steelers fifth round draft choice, was a do-it-all player at Florida. Todd Haley is expected to use Rainey much like he did Dexter McCluster in Kansas City; Rainey will be a running back, receiver out of the backfield, and a slot receiver. One other thing Rainey excelled at while at Florida was special teams. Rainey not only returned kicks and punts he was also used as a speed rusher to block kicks and punts.
During Rainey’s career at Florida he was used sparingly as a return man, but when he got the ball he was explosive. Over his past three seasons he returned 25 punts and scored 2 touchdowns on those returns. His punt return average for his career is 9 yards/attempt (Antonio Brown’s career average is 8.9). On kickoffs Rainey averaged 25.2 yards per return during his career (Brown’s career average is 25.8). Although Rainey wasn’t a featured returner (in an effort to keep him healthy as a top offensive weapon) he was explosive when he got the ball in his hands. So far during camp Rainey has been fielding punts and kick-offs and is expected to be the top returner for the team in 2012.[youtube]KGBeko5pD9k[/youtube]
Marquis Maze – Maze was a standout receiver and return man at Alabama and helped them to win the 2012 National Championship. However, at 5’8″ and 186 pounds he doesn’t possess the best size for an NFL wide receiver. Although Maze could potentially be the better return man between he and Rainey he may not have the skills to deserve a roster spot on offense.
Maze and Rainey have been returning punts and kicks during training camp so far, but they have yet to distance themselves from each other. During the preseason games they will continue to return kicks and based on their returns and play on offense they will earn (or lose) a roster spot; at least for Maze. Rainey is a virtual lock to make the 53-man roster. Maze, on the other hand, will need a great preseason as a receiver and return man to make the Steelers opening day roster.[youtube]FmZQz6eR6Z8[/youtube]
Who wins? – I’ll take Rainey. He’ll have to have a very poor preseason as a return man to not be the Steelers opening day return man. Maze may be the better of the two now in terms of returning kicks, but Rainey is no sloch. As long as both players fair well during the preseason and stay healthy Rainey will take the return man slot. Maze’s best chance of being the return man is if he can distance himself as the fifth best receiver as well as best return man. Right now Maze will have to beat out Toney Clemons, Derrick Williams, and a few others to be the fifth receiver on the depth chart. Clemons has the inside track as a seventh round draft pick, but some drop issues have plagued him thus-far in camp.
If Maze distances himself as the fifth receiver on the depth chart he will likely be the return man for the Steelers in 2012. Maze as the return man could be a benefit; it would allow Rainey to focus his attention on being a running back/wide receiver.