When the NFL Draft ends each year there is usually a microphone or two shoved in the face both the offensive coordinator and the defensive coordinator of a given team. Because every draft is different, the level of excitement for these two individuals is always different. The one guy who rarely is asked any questions is the Special Teams’ Coordinator. This is largely because “football’s third phase of the game” is often it’s most over-looked. For the Pittsburgh Steelers and Special Teams’ Coach Danny Smith however, this draft has brought a bounty of players Smith must take advantage of.
In other words, there aren’t going to be any more excuses for Smith.
If you’ve been a regular reader of this site then you know we aren’t crazy about Smith’s work as the coach of the special teams. The inability to find a stable return man, find a replacement for Antonio Brown on punt returns and inconsistent blocking and tackling are our major concerns. I was certain Smith was going to be looking for work in 2017 but I was wrong.
If you look at the players the Steelers drafted, each is capable of having an impact on special teams in one form or another. James Conner is a top prospect for duty on both punt and punt return as well as kickoff and kick return because he’s aggressive, he can block and he can tackle. Don’t forget he came to Pitt as a defender.
I expect Cam Sutton, the Steelers’ third round draft choice from Tennessee, to see action on a number of special teams’ units as well. He does have some punt returning experience with 46 career punt returns but only had six last season as he battled injuries. Whether or not he is a potential replacement for Brown is doubtful in my mind but that doesn’t mean he won’t get a shot.
Sixth round pick Colin Holba will see plenty of special teams action if he unseats Greg Warren as the team’s long snapper. It’s an all or nothing proposition for Holba because if he can’t win the job he will likely be looking for work elsewhere.
Both Brian Allen(5th round) and Keion Adams (7th round) will struggle to make the roster so worrying about special teams might not be apt at the moment. That said, special teams is exactly the place where guys like this can win roster spots with effort and mental preparedness.
The top two picks, T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster will likely need to contribute for Danny Smith. Smith-Schuster has some kick return experience with a total of 16 during his three years at USC. Unfortunately, he has only returned five kicks in the last two seasons. That doesn’t mean he won’t get a look there but with Knile Davis projected to be the return man it’s doubtful.
Where I really think Smith-Schuster will be effective is on punt return. He is an aggressive blocker who stays with his man well in the run game and those traits can translate. As for Watt, it’s hard to tell. He’ll be involved on special teams in some capacity and my guess is the field goal units. His height, long arms and athleticism would be welcome there and his straight-line speed would work for kickoff team as well.
Whether any or all of these players were drafted with special teams in mind is not something I can confirm but I do know this; Danny Smith has to have better results and more success than he did last year. This unit just has to be better for his sake and for ours.
Photo courtesy: Alcheron