Pittsburgh Steelers rookie receiver hoping to lessen Antonio Brown's workload

Seventh-round pick hoping to stick as a return specialist but he also came on strong in the spring as a receiver

Turn on the college tape of Pittsburgh Steelers rookie receiver Demarcus Ayers and you'll see the former University of Houston star not only catching passes  but running reverses, throwing passes and returning punts, and oftentimes making defenders look silly.

In fact, his college tape shows him doing a lot of the same things the Steelers do with current star receiver Antonio Brown.

“Yeah, I did a lot of different things,” Ayers said. “I ran end-arounds and reverses and threw the ball. The coaches wanted to do whatever they could to get the ball in my hands. I feel like I’m a playmaker, so I accepted that role.”

The Steelers don’t expect Ayers to completely follow in the footsteps of Brown, but they’d certainly like him to ease the burden on their star receiver.

A sixth-round draft pick in 2010 out of Central Michigan, the 5-10, 181-pound Brown has worked hard to become arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL. He’s also one of the few star receivers who also returns punts.

And that’s where Ayers enters the picture.

At 5-9, 182, Ayers wasn’t the biggest receiver in this year’s draft, and he disappointed at the NFL combine with a 4.72-second performance in the 40. But he improved upon that at his on-campus workout, running in the high 4.5s and doing enough to catch the collective eye of the Steelers, although they waited until the seventh round to grab him.

“My dad had met Coach Tomlin at my pro day,” Ayers said. “At the time the Steelers were really looking at my teammate, William Jackson. I went out there and worked out very hard and had a good individual workout, as far as running routes and catching punts, and Mike Tomlin was right there to see my ability. I was really excited when he called me and told me they had been looking at me ever since.”

What the Steelers saw was a player special-teams coordinator Danny Smith called the best punt returner in this year’s draft.

“We had him rated No. 1 on our list,” said Smith. “Not taking into play wide receiver skills in this setting, he is outstanding and he does a great job. He has a lot of special skills.”

Ayers recorded 98 catches for 1,222 yards last season, adding 28 punt returns for an average of 10.4 yards and one touchdown.

The Steelers had a similar rating on Brown in 2010, not that they have the same expectations for Ayers. But they would like to see him become the guy who takes the punt returning duties away from their star receiver.

Ayers knows if he’s going to make the 53-man roster, winning the punt return job is a must.

“I take pride and ownership in receiving punts and returning kicks,” he said. “However you have to make that 53-man roster, that’s what I’m going to do. And I know for me, special teams is the key.”

Brown has always fought hard to keep the punt return duties, despite reaching superstar status as a receiver. But he’s also not going to stand in the way of Ayers.

“If the coaching staff feels like he’s a better option than me, so be it,” Brown said. “I want to do what’s best for the team.”

To that end, Brown embraced the rookie, even though he was brought in specifically to take one of his duties.

“I was nervous when I first met him,” Ayers conceded. “He introduced himself. He helped all the young receivers, including me. That showed me what type of guy he is and the energy he brings.”

Ayers hopes to bring a similar excitement. With his ability to make defenders miss in the open field, he certainly has that capability. The key will be putting it on display when the Steelers hit the practice fields at Saint Vincent College for training camp later this month.

You can bet that Ayers will be watching as much of Brown as he can.

“I hope I can be as good as him,” Ayers said. “He’s one of the best, if not the best in the league. I just want to learn as much as I can from him.”

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