There’s been some debate over whether or not Antonio Brown should return punts for the Steelers this season. It’s not a question of talent, rather a question of risk versus reward when it comes to injury. Nobody questions that Brown is one of the best punt returners in the league. The question is, what happens if he were to get hurt while doing it? We got a harsh glimpse of life without Brown is like last season. AB suffered a severe concussion against the Bengals, which caused him to miss the next game against the Broncos. That injury certainly contributed to the playoff loss to Denver. Should Pittsburgh risk the best receiver in the league getting hurt while returning punts is a very valid question.
Injuries during punt returns are rare. A good deal of them result in fair catches, and returners going out of bounds untouched. Alex Kozora does a nice job breaking down the percentages of how rare it is for injuries to occur on punt returns for Steelers Depot. The argument that you play your best players, and ignore injury risks is one almost all coaches will adhere to. It can backfire in a big way though. Look at the example set by the New England Patriots a few seasons ago. All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski was injured blocking for an extra point with the Patriots up 59-24. Gronkowski broke his forearm and ended up missing four weeks. That should stand as a glaring warning that players can and do get injured on special teams.
Probably my biggest concern for Brown returning punts is the risk of another concussion. It is the single biggest issue facing the NFL today. The threat of getting a concussion is even greater once you’ve already had one. That’s not a chance I’d be willing to take just to get a few extra yards on a punt return. Pittsburgh drafted a punt returner in Demarcus Ayers in the 7th round, he should get first crack at he job. They also have Eli Rogers or Darrius Heyward-Bey who can return punts. Whoever Pittsburgh chooses will be fine by me, so long as it’s not Brown. They just can’t afford to lose him for any length of time, especially given the fact that Martavis Bryant is already gone for the season.