Like every other NFL team, the Steelers had to reduce their roster down to 53 players on Saturday in the annual league-wide mandated cut-down day.
- There weren’t any shockers, for sure, but there may have been a mild surprise or two.
- One cut that may, I say, may, have shocked some people was the cutting of CFL punt-return sensation, Diontae Spencer.
After putting together a couple of All-Star worthy seasons up in Canada, many believed Diontae Spencer could be the answer to Pittsburgh’s less-than-stellar punt return game over the past couple of seasons. Yes, with now former receiver Antonio Brown getting phased out of that part of the game over his final few seasons in Pittsburgh, the Steelers just couldn’t find anyone to bring the occasional spark to punt returns like Brown did.
Ryan Switzer was decent enough in 2018, after Pittsburgh acquired him in a trade with the Raiders right before the start of the regular season, but Spencer’s resume suggested he could be a level or two above merely decent.
And while he wasn’t the story of the preseason, Diontae Spencer did show enough in two or three of his punt returns to make it clear that he was the closest thing to a true play-maker, difference-maker, that the team had on its roster.
But Diontae Spencer’s talents in the return game weren’t enough to keep him on the roster, especially when he was so limited as a receiver and, at 5’8″, 163 pounds, a gunner-type player on special teams.
It also didn’t help Spencer’s case that the Steelers only kept five receivers. That is what really doomed him. It wasn’t a matter of Pittsburgh keeping Switzer over Spencer. It was a matter of camp sensations such as outside linebacker Tuzar Skipper and inside linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III simply being way too good to cut or risk signing to the practice squad.
If the special teams abilities of Tyler Matakevich and Anthony Chickillo were deemed to be very valuable despite the limitations each displayed at their respective positions, sacrifices were going to have to be made elsewhere, hence the decision to part ways with a one-trick pony punt-returner.
When you really think about it, under no circumstances would a player as limited as Spencer make a receiving corps made up of just five players. If Switzer was suddenly considered disposable, it’s unlikely Spencer would have been the first receiver to get the nod as the fifth. My guess is Johnny Holton, who brought much more to the table as both a receiver and an all-around special teams player, would have gotten the nod.
- Is Ryan Switzer less spectacular as a return man than Spencer was during his short stay?
Yes. But he’s much more capable as a receiver (and it also doesn’t hurt that Ben Roethlisberger has endorsed his abilities). You also have to remember that Diontae Johnson, a rookie receiver the Steelers selected in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, may yet grow into the role of punt returner while he hones his game at his actual position.
- Finally, while the role of punt returner is a valuable one, it’s not nearly as valuable as that of a player who can wear many hats.
Diontae Spencer wore just one hat in Pittsburgh, and that’s why he’s out shopping for another NFL team.