2023 Training Camp Battles: Return Man

2023 Training Camp Battles: Return Man

With training camp just around the corner, it’s time to turn our focus on what is going on within each position, and on the roster as a whole. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be taking a closer look at some of the roster battles that we expect to see unfold over the course of training camp as the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for the start of the 2023 season.

This year, there will be no quarterback competition overshadowing everything that goes on at Latrobe, but there will still be plenty of battles to sift through, both in the starting lineup and in depth. The Steelers added many new faces this offseason, rookie and veteran alike, and it’s in training camp that we begin to see where all the pieces fit.

Position: Return Man

Up for Grabs: Starter

In the Mix: Gunner Olszewski, Calvin Austin III, Anthony McFarland Jr., Alfonzo Graham, Jordan Byrd

The list of players in the mixt for the job is not necessarily exhaustive but does include everybody I’ve seen reported as having regularly participated in the return lines during spring drills. This is a key job opening with no incumbent, Steven Sims having left in free agency.

Gunner Olszewski is the only one of the group to have anything to lay claim to. He was an All-Pro returner during the 2020 season for the New England Patriots. It’s what the Steelers signed him to do, though ball security issues led to his benching within a few games.

As for the others, both Graham and Byrd, the former a running back and the latter nominally a wide receiver though almost exclusively a returner, are undrafted rookies. McFarland and Austin are former fourth-round picks who have proven virtually nothing up to this point. Austin is in his second season after spending his rookie year on the Reserve/Injured List.

If I were to guess, the Steelers coaching staff would most like to see Austin win the job. Listening to coaches and players talk, it sounds as though they are optimistic about being able to use the diminutive speedster in a variety of roles, wherever he can be useful.

While he was successful as a punt returner in college, it should be noted that he did have some ball-security issues. Of the group, Byrd is the most accomplished returner at the college level, and his handling was pretty clean. But he seems to be a one-note player who would exclusively be a return man if he were to make the team—which would make it extremely hard to do so.

The one-year implementation of a kickoff rule that allows any kick downed at any point of field inside the 25-yard line to be taken out to the 25, most predict, will greatly diminish the value of the return position. Even if so, there will be situations in which teams want to try to force a kick return, and that still leaves punt returns.

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