The Steelers first season without Heath Miller exposed an obvious void at tight end, a position that had been stable since he was drafted in 2005. Despite Miller’s retirement though, the Steelers did get some big plays this season from second year man Jesse James and free agent Ladarius Green. Xavier Grimble, made a few clutch grabs of his own and showed some athleticism at the position as well. It isn’t easy replacing one of the best tight ends in NFL history, especially when it takes three different players to fill the role of what one player used to do, but that is the challenge that the Steelers now face.
Showing noticeable growth in his second season with both his blocking and route running, Jesse James’ ceiling is still truly that of a solid complimentary tight end. This is by no means a criticism of James, or of his value to the offense, but in the offenses of today’s NFL, the Steelers need more out of their starting tight end than James can provide. With that being said, there is still alot that he brings to the table that makes Jesse James a unique weapon. At 6’7″/261 lbs, and possessing decent speed, James is a physical mismatch for just about every defender on the field. He has shown a surprising catch radius, and will fight for every yard he can get after the catch. While the “outlaw” has shown the ability to make the difficult grab, he also has a tendency to drop the easy ones as well.
When the Steelers signed the free agent from San Diego to 4 year/$20 million deal, many envisioned the nightmare that Green could be for opposing secondaries. Many also believed that he could help soften the blow of losing Martavis Bryant for the season, but instead, we are left to wonder exactly how much of an NFL career that Green has left, due to his latest concussion. All told, this tremendously talented tight end didn’t hit the active roster until November 12th, apparently because of the lingering effects of a concussion suffered last year, and appeared in only 5 games before another one ended his first season in Pittsburgh. In the five games that Green played, he showed a ton of ability, but of all the ability that he does have, the one the Steelers need the most is availability.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are the fourth team that Xavier Grimble has played for since signing with the Giants as undrafted rookie free agent in 2014, but may have finally found himself a home in the Steel City. In limited action this season, Grimble caught 11 passes for 118 yards and 2 impressive touchdowns, one of which was a full extension dive, on the game’s opening drive, at home against Baltimore on Chistmas day. If Grimble, who was labeled an underachiever coming out of USC, can match his production to his potential, he will surely force the Steelers to increase his opportunities within the offense.
Primarily a blocking tight end, David Johnson returned to the Steelers this year, after two seasons with the San Diego Chargers, catching 7 passes for 80 yards. Originally a seventh round draft pick of the Steelers in 2009, Johnson has essentially inherited the role that Matt Spaeth filled, a solid blocker who catches the occasional pass, making him a valued part of the run game. Johnson caught a pass to finish off a two point conversion against Cleveland on November 20th.
With Jesse James, the Steelers are developing a reliable target, but heading into the draft, they have to decide whether or not the risk with Ladarius Green’s concussion issues outweigh the benefits of the enormous talent he brings to the offense. Getting only 5 games out of him during the first year of his contract definitely does not inspire hope for a healthy return on their investment. It might be a wise move for the Steelers to cut bait now and find a tight end through free agency, or in the draft, such as Evan Engram from Ole Miss. Minus the criminal behavior and an affinity for murder, Engram’s talent compares to that of Aaron Hernandez, who was killed opposing defenses. Either way, the Steelers will surely do what is best for them to ensure that they have the playmaker they need to own the middle of the field and down the seams.