These Steelers kick returner options are better than using QB Justin Fields

There are much wiser options than using quarterback Justin Fields to return kicks for the Steelers in 2024.
Pittsburgh Steelers OTA Offseason Workout
Pittsburgh Steelers OTA Offseason Workout / Joe Sargent/GettyImages

The NFL adopted a new kickoff rule this offseason, and the Steelers were quick to capitalize on this change. They signed Cordarrelle Patterson as the revamped rules figure to make the kickoff a more vital part of the game once again. Patterson is one of the best returners ever, so he figures to play a pivotal role there.

The issue lies in the fact that there will now be two kick returners back on every return. Patterson will obviously be the prime option, but teams can kick away from him. The second returner will be important for this team. The question remains, who will occupy that second spot on kickoffs?

Initially a joke, some fans seem to have flocked to the idea of Justin Fields serving as a return man. Madden 25 further fueled this speculation when they featured Fields as a returner in the trailer for their upcoming game. That said, here are five better return options for the team in 2025.

The Steelers usual suspects

The most logical name for the team to puck back there has to be Calvin Austin. While he doesn’t have an extensive history as a return man, he took on the role of punt returner last year and performed well in that role. Assuming he makes the roster, Austin’s speed could be an assist here.

Austin isn’t a lock to make the roster though given the wealth of middling options available on the team. If the Steelers decided to cut Austin, it likely means that Quez Watkins beat him out. Like Austin, he has a lot of speed and experience as a return man.

The issue is that pure speed may not be the best option for kick returns given this new layout. Most teams seem to be treating these returns as glorified run plays. Returners need the ability to break tackles and get to the second level. While both Watkins and Austin have the speed element, they cannot break tackles well.

Perhaps the team could go against their usual trends. Cameron Sutton was a prolific return man in college. While the Steelers have shied away from using defenders as a return man, Sutton has a lot of previous experience and could provide something different to this unit. That is, assuming the team gets past its hesitancy to put a defender back there.

Even more unconventional could be Conner Heyward. He saw action as a kick returner at Michigan State when he was a running back and plays with a lot of power. The need for some power and the ability to break tackles could make him appealing here. As well, when Patterson does get returns, Heyward can use his blocking ability there. The team has used bigger return men in the past such as Gary Russell, so Heyward has some potential here.

Given the new style of return, with the focus on breaking tackles and getting into space, I think Jaylen Warren could be potent here. The team may not want to use both of their backup running backs on kickoffs, and Warren has no experience in that role, but his style seems like a great fit for the new rules.

Patterson was brought in to man one of the kick-off spots, but the team will need to find a viable second option so teams don’t always kick away from him. I think Austin could have the early advantage, but I could see Heyward and Warren getting some looks as well. Just don’t expect Fields to be back there regularly despite the unprecedented hype around him doing that.

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