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Steelers All 90: Dying Breed? Dan Chisena Hopes Special Teams Still Matter



Steelers WR Dan Chisena
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Dan Chisena at OTAs, May 31, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

In college football recruiting, most prospects are ranked based on the position they’re likely to play. A few don’t have a clear future path, so they’re just listed as an athlete. Dan Chisena of the Pittsburgh Steelers is one of the few that deserves to keep that moniker all the way into the NFL.

Chisena wasn’t considered much of a prospect coming out of high school. A zero-star recruit, he had one scholarship offer to Delaware. He decided to walk on to Penn State, where he also competed in track and field, running the 100 and 400 meters for the Nittany Lions and winning a Big Ten title.

When he got the opportunity to play football stating in 2018, he ran with it — pun intended. Chisena used his track speed to carve a niche on the Nittany Lions depth chart, first as a scout team player, then as special team, and eventually as a wide receiver, which remains his nominative position.

But he’s not like a normal wide receiver. Of the 507 NFL snaps that Chisena has played in his three-year NFL career, 496 of them have been on special teams. He’s the closest thing the Steelers have to a pure special teamer without an offensive or defensive position, and he’s been putting that track speed to good use on teams.

His background in track and field obviously helped him become the athlete that he is, but Chisena says these days, the work is quite different from his time running the 400 meters.

“Track, the sport is conditioning, so you get in very good shape, but you only have to run that race once and then you’re done for the day,” Chisena said. “Football is a lot of back and forth, change of direction, running down field, cutting, tackling. Night and day. You’d like to think that you know how to get in good shape just because of track, but there’s a lot more technical details.”

There’s also the ability to deal with the high-speed collisions that are part and parcel to NFL kickoff coverage, which certainly isn’t part of the program in track. 

But that part of the game has been under fire recently. The NFL has been making rule changes to kickoffs over the last decade in an attempt to improve player safety on what has been studied to be the most dangerous play of the game.

This season, teams will be allowed to fair catch a kickoff anywhere inside the 25-yard line and have the ball brought out to that point. That will likely change the strategy involved in kickoffs, and it could result in an overall reduction in the number of kicks that get returned.

“It definitely changes things,” Chisena said. “A big thing in the past couple of years has been those hang kicks, putting them right at the goal line, so it’s that decision for that returner. … Anticipating more squib kicks and just trying to keep that element in the game and trying to pin people deep without kicking those hanging balls to the goal line.”

Of course, there may come a time when players without a position like Chisena won’t be useful to NFL teams. As special teams are de-emphasized, it won’t be the specialists like kickers, punters and long snappers that have a hard time finding work, but gunners, personal protectors and wingbacks that get passed over in favor of players that might make better backups.

It doesn’t look good, but Chisena’s path to the NFL is proof that the way things look isn’t always the way they turn out.

“You can’t spent too much time worrying about what you can’t control,” he said.

85 • Dan Chisena, Wide Receiver, Penn State
6-foot-3, 202 pounds, 26 years old, 3rd Season

Acquired: The Steelers signed Chisena on Jan. 23 to a one-year contract for the 2023 season.

Last seasonChisena played in only two games for the Vikings in 2022, spending most of the season on the team’s practice squad. He was waived at the end of training camp and added to the practice squad.

He was elevated for two games, against the Chicago Bears in Week 5 and the Washington Commanders in Week 9. He played a total of 24 snaps, exclusively on special teams and recorded two tackles.

Dan Chisena

Penn State wide receiver Dan Chisena (88) attempts to haul in a pass as Pittsburgh defensive back Damarri Mathis (21) defends in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

CareerThe Vikings originally signed Chisena as an undrafted free agent in 2020. He made the 53-man

Year GP Team Rec Yds Tackles FF/FR PFF Grade
2020 14 MIN 0 0 6 0/1 71.0
2021 11 MIN 0 0 3 0/0 74.7
2022 2 MIN 0 0 2 0/0 77.2

CollegeA track and football star at Downingtown East High School in Chester County, Chisena ran track for the Nittany Lions from 2016-18. He competed in the 100 and 400 meters, and was a part of Penn State’s relay team that won the 2017 Big Ten championship.

In 2018, he walked onto the football team, playing appearing in two games on special teams while also being a multiple-time scout team player of the week.

The following season, he earned a scholarship, played in 12 games and made two starts. He won the John Bruno Award as Penn State’s top special teams player.

Year GP  Rec Yards Tackles FF/FR
2018 2 0 0 0 0/0
2019 12 3 66 4 0/1

Salary cap and future: Chisena signed a one-year contract worth $940,000 for 2023. He has no signing bonus and there would be no dead cap hit if the Steelers release him. If he makes the team, he will be a restricted free agent after the 2023 season.

The rest of the 90: