The Chris Rainey experiment only lasted one disappointing season for the Steelers because of off the field issues the team just didn’t want to deal with anymore. Not that I disagree with the decision to waive Rainey, however, it’s worth noting that he was a very good kick returner for the Steelers in 2012. In fact, Rainey finished his rookie year tied for seventh in kick return average (26.5), and eighth in yards (1035). His release, coupled with the fact that the Steelers want to decrease Antonio Brown’s role on special teams, leaves the team with an open competition for both kick and punt return duties.
Current players on the roster who have any kind of experience returning kicks are:
RB LaRod Stephens-Howling
CB Terry Hawthorne
WR J.D. Wood
WR Markus Wheaton
WR Derek Moye
WR Kashif Moore
WR David Gilreath
WR Reggie Dunn
WR Emmanuel Sanders
RB Isaac Redman
Wood, Moye, Redman and Moore are the least likely to get serious looks, as combined they have 344 return yards in their career. Emmanuel Sanders has the ability to be used in both kick and punt returns though I think the Steelers would rather him focus more on being a receiver. So in my opinion that leaves LaRod Stephens-Howling, Terry Hawthorne, Markus Wheaton, David Gilreath and Reggie Dunn as serious candidates to return kicks for the Steelers.
Stephens-Howling, being a four year NFL veteran clearly has the most experience and has 4067 yards and three touchdowns in his career. It’s this experience that makes Stephens-Howling a lock to make the 53 man roster in my opinion with the only problem being that he hasn’t returned a punt to this point in the NFL.
Terry Hawthorne impressed at the Steelers rookie mini-camp at cornerback and his return ability is just added bonus to him potentially making the roster. In college Hawthorne had 347 kick return and 46 punt return yards in his four years at Illinois. I think Hawthorne will at least get a look at returning kicks but otherwise I don’t see him winning the job.
Markus Wheaton has the least experience of my personal five finalists for the job with only 149 combined return yardage in his entire college career. Wheaton will get his shot to return kicks but like with Hawthorne, I don’t see him winning the job in the end.
Reggie Dunn was brought in as an undrafted free agent and his only chance to make the roster out of camp is going to be his ability to return kicks. In his college career Dunn racked up 1482 yards and five touchdowns with little to no experience returning punts. Dunn is going to have to prove he is more than just a return specialist for the Steelers to consider keeping him on the roster.
David Gilreath made his first appearance in the NFL last season and returned two punts for eight yards for the Steelers. In college Gilreath had 3008 kick return yards, 738 punt return yards and two combined touchdowns. Gilreath has a great shot this year in camp to prove he can contribute as both a returner and a receiver. His versatility could put him ahead of a veteran like Plaxico Burress and could force the team to keep six receivers out of camp.
This is going to be one of the more interesting position battles in camp and in the end I see the Steelers ultimately going with LaRod Stephens-Howling as the kick returner and David Gilreath as the punt returner for the 2013 season.