The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.
Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the pessimist’s take on the following question.
Question: Is the Steelers’ current group of tight ends a legitimately deep position?
It’s one perspective to say that the Steelers have managed to amass a healthy collection of talent at the tight end position in order to compensate in the wake of the retirement of Heath Miller, the greatest tight end in the franchise’s history. The opposite perspective would be to say that they are throwing money and bodies at a problem.
While Miller’s retirement gave the Steelers a healthy cap savings, they turned around and used that savings on the signing of free agent Ladarius Green for an average of $5 million per season. Still recovering from ankle surgery, the fifth-year tight end known for his speed has yet to practice.
The carryovers from last year’s 53-man roster are Matt Spaeth, the blocking tight end, and Jesse James, the second-year man who does not have a niche or concrete role just yet. He began to amass playing time in the second half of his rookie season.
Understanding the predicament, the Steelers went out and reacquired David Johnson, whose signing is also related to the loss of Will Johnson, as David is the only player from the current group with experience and skill set to come out of the backfield.
Rounding out the group is Xavier Grimble, who has yet to be on a 53-man roster. For as much as he might have been said to flash during practices, he has just two receptions for four yards in his preseason experience since going undrafted in 2014.
Grimble is a thoroughly untested player who, frankly, reminds me of the way that Weslye Saunders used to get talked about during his brief tenure with the team. Johnson and Spaeth have both battled injuries and are highly limited as receivers, and are certainly past their primes with no further upside—only downside.
Green should, of course, be a very nice addition, but he has to get on the field first, which is particularly important given the questions about his blocking ability. Meanwhile, we are awaiting to see what the future holds of James.
Outside of Green, and perhaps James, what the Steelers have is an assemblage of spare parts that on paper seem to be passable in order to fill a depth chart. Spaeth is on the decline, only beat reporters have seen Grimble in practice shorts, and Johnson has never been a consistent in-line blocking tight end. It’s enough to make a roster, but it remains to be seen whether the group can transcend its seeming limitations.