The Pittsburgh Steelers have found themselves having somewhat of a busy off-season. While there have been some departures, most notably was last year’s starting cornerback, Steven Nelson. Nelson was recently released after requesting a trade from the Steelers after just two short seasons. 2020’s starting running back, James Conner is still on the market as well, in search for his new NFL home. While the strongest push will be the search for replacements for both this off-season, there is still time to celebrate the various re-signings the Steelers have made this off-season as well, most notably both DT Tyson Alualu and WR JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Minus those bigger moves if you will, the Steelers have been active in signing guys who might not have captured the same type of attention from another organization, but do fit their particular mold. That being said, the Steelers added to an already deep position group this past week when they announced they have signed wide receivers Mathew Sexton and Tyler Simmons both to one-year contracts. These aren’t household names, but both have had a few short stints in NFL training camps at the most and still have a bit of intrigue to their names. Now, as stated before, there is no exception of depth at this position, especially after just re-signing Smith-Schuster back for the upcoming year, and having two up and coming superstars in Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson behind him. This leaves playing time scarce for anyone else at that position. It’s not known the extent of playing time those prospects are bound to get, but with their particular types of skill sets, there may be opportunities for these players elsewhere on the team.
I think both prospects were brought in to have a significant impact on the Steelers special teams unit, rather than competing for a roster spot at WR. In my opinion, this move was made with the hopes that last year’s primary return man, Ray-Ray McCloud can shift his focus on becoming a more important part of the wide receiving group than he was last year. When given the opportunity on the offensive side of things last season, McCloud showed his natural speed and agility with the ball in his hands which is the exact reason the Steelers had him primarily returning kicks in 2020. I think The Steelers are working under the assumption that McCloud will take that next step forward needed to become a more vital part of the new offensive schemes that new offensive coordinator, Matt Canada will bring this season.
If that situation came to light, it can be left to assume that the Steelers might be left in good hands as far as finding their new returner. Obviously, for anyone who has watched Steeler football over the past couple of seasons, the return game has been something we have been missing, not since we had Antonio Brown back there doing his thing many years ago. Not for a lack of trying though, the Steelers have brought in many players throughout the years who have had success returning kicks in the NFL, it just hasn’t worked out for whatever reason. Prime example is when we traded with the Las Vegas Raiders for WR Ryan Switzer back in 2018 for the sole purpose of being the team’s permanent returner. Since then, it’s been stagnant and it’s no surprise that the Steelers are looking to revamp this special teams unit.
Sexton and Simmons are both speed guys who have experience returning kicks at the college level. Both prospects, since undrafted in 2020, were given the opportunity to participate in college pro days. While there, both took advantage and clocked in running a 4.41 (Simmons) and a low 4.3 (Sexton) 40-yard dash. You pair that blazing speed with a bit more experience, and something could come of this. Let’s be optimistic here.
While at the University of Georgia, Simmons did some time filling in as the team’s primary punt returner throughout the 2019 campaign. During that time, he returned 9 punts for only 143 yards. A small sample size, yes, but good for an average of about 9 yards a return. On the other hand, Sexton while playing at Eastern Michigan University spent 3 seasons sharing time as the team’s primary return man with his best statistical year being in 2018 where he returned 18 punts for 312 yards and a single touchdown.
It may be farfetched, I just find it hard to believe that the Steelers brought both of these guys in for no reason. Depth is always something a team looks for, and for all I know, this move could have been made simply to add depth to a position but at the very most, I believe these guys will get a chance to compete to be this team’s primary return man in 2021, they seem worth a shot to me.