The Pittsburgh Steelers will have competition at running back and outside linebacker this year, although I believe rookies Le'Veon Bell and Jarvis Jones will win those jobs. The most wide-open battle in Pittsburgh is in the return game.
The release of Chris Rainey in January forces the Steelers to find another kickoff returner, and the promotion of Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to the No. 1 and No. 2 wide receiver spots, respectively, likely means Pittsburgh will go with a new punt returner.
As the Steelers get ready to take the field for the first of three voluntary minicamps this week, you could make the case for around 10 players to compete over bringing back kicks and punts. But, when looking closely at the candidates, I see four as serious contenders to become the new returners.
On kickoff returns, running back and free-agent addition LaRod Stephens-Howling has to be considered the favorite. His role as a returner decreased the past two seasons in Arizona, but he averaged 25.7 yards and scored three touchdowns on kickoffs in his first two seasons in the NFL.
The one returner who could unseat him is undrafted rookie Reggie Dunn from Utah. He set the NCAA record for career 100-yard returns (five) and single-game 100-yard kickoff returns (two).
“He is an exciting player. He ran in the 4.3s on his pro day,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said of Dunn at a recent fan forum with season-ticke holders. “We’re excited because the speed (is something) you can’t teach. You have to give that young man the opportunity to prove what he can or can’t do on the field.”
Colbert said he's anxious to see how Dunn can handle punts. According to Colbert, Dunn didn't return many punts in college because Utah had others who were "quite honestly, better during his time there."
Dunn's only way of making the roster is as a return specialist. As Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette points out, coach Mike Tomlin has a history of using a roster spot for a player who can only return kicks, Allen Rossum in 2007 and Stefan Logan in 2009. But both didn't contribute much else other than being a return specialist and lasted one season in Pittsburgh.
The other players who should get the opportunity to return punts are rookie sixth-round pick Justin Brown and David Gilreath. Brown averaged 13.5 yards per punt at Oklahoma and scored a touchdown. Gilreath, who holds the Big Ten for career kickoff returns, also ranked sixth in the Big Ten with an 8.8-yard average on punt returns before going undrafted in 2011. Last season, he returned two punts for a total of eight yards.
There's not as much mystery at returner around the AFC North. The Ravens kept Jacoby Jones and the Bengals re-signed Brandon Tate, but Adam Jones and Onterio McCalebb will push Tate. The Browns are expected to replace Pro Bowl returner Josh Cribbs with Travis Benjamin on punts and Dion Lewis on kickoffs.