In less than two weeks, we’ll be at training camp, watching the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 90 man roster roll through 14 practices and four games. There will be so much to learn, tons of things going on, so I want to lay out some of my expectations and hopes for each player before things start up and, frankly, all this speculation becomes irrelevant.
We’ll stick with the skill positions and look at the tight end corps.
Ladarius Green – The main issue is an obvious one and something you certainly don’t need me to say. Get healthy, get as many reps as possible. It wouldn’t be shocking in the least to see him open up on the PUP coming off the ankle surgery he had that caused him to miss the entire spring.
Like I’ve written about, he needs reps to get comfortable in the offense, for Ben Roethlisberger to get comfortable with him, for Todd Haley to figure out best how to use him in the offense.
Bouncing off that last point, Green will have to get used to the grunt work. He’s done some of it in San Diego but not at the same frequency – blocking in the run game, taking on ends by himself in pass protection. All things every tight end in this offense is demanded to do.
And then there’s the fun stuff. How does an athletic freak fit in one of the most powerful offenses in the league? I’m not sure Haley wants to show all his cards but I want to see how he’s used removed from the formation, something Pittsburgh has never seen before. That slot fade I wrote about…dying to see it in action.
Jesse James – Honestly, it’s still everything with James. Being a weapon as a receiver, continuing to make strides as a blocker. I want, and expect, him to be stronger, going from a senior year rookie to a second year player who’s spent a year in an NFL system.
James has to show coaches that there’s no doubt he is in position to be the #2 tight end. Make some impact plays down the seam and show nasty in the run game. That steady improvement you’d expect to see.
Matt Spaeth – Spaeth is one of those guys who’s fighting himself. He’s an older, creakier, Matt Spaeth. He’s like The Tin Man. Like last season, he’s probably going to be held out every other practice. If that’s the case, he’s only going to be around for seven practices and though it’s not like he needs to prove himself the way, say, a rookie does, it gives those other guys plenty of opportunity to show off.
His size, length, and blocking ability have always been his strengths and it’s no different this year. The question is not if Spaeth has played well enough to earn a roster spot. It’s if someone has played better to knock him off it.
David Johnson – He could’ve been placed with either the fullbacks or tight ends but I think most identify him with the latter. There’s certainly a path to make the roster, his versatility is a calling card on gameday, but I want to see him succeed as an in-line tight end like I know he can be as a fullback.
The Steelers have a specific body type at tight end – tall and long. And Johnson doesn’t have either of those qualities. So it’s a tougher challenge for him to try and base or pass protect against the big ends the team is going to face (Trent Murphy, Carlos Dunlap, Randy Gregory for example). So I want to see how Johnson fares and if he’s used in that way in the preseason. Because if he isn’t, it’s a bad sign to him making this roster.
Xavier Grimble – Camp’s mystery man. And someone who could easily become this year’s fan darling. I bet you good money the guy is going to make some impressive plays. He has the size and the body type – check the pictures, the dude is rocked – to make him an interesting product. He needs to show a whole lot more athleticism than he did during his Pro Day, turning in a 4.9 40 and 30.5 inch vertical back in 2014.
Of course, as I’ve mentioned many times, if you want to play tight end, you need to be able to be a useful in-line blocker. That remains to be seen with Grimble, we really have no clue what his skillset is.
Special teams is probably not going to be a huge factor, a rare time when you can say that about a non-trenchwork position. The #2 and #3 tight ends will probably only be used as wings on field goals and part of the “wedge,” neither of which are exactly standout spots. Maybe Grimble gets some burn as the wing on punts but I’m not convinced it’s something that is in the cards once the regular season starts.
Paul Lang – If you were forced to stack this roster 1 to 90 by percentage of the fanbase that knows they exist, Lang would be circling the drain with Roy Philon and Mike Reilly. The skinny on him from reports is that he’s a decent blocker but B movie athlete.
His best shot is going to come early in camp. If Green starts on PUP and knowing Matt Spaeth is probably going to be an every-other-day player, it’s his best chance at reps. He’ll have to make an impact in some way because if that scenario plays out and Green comes back, Lang could be the guy getting the ax.
Obviously, for a UDFA, the goal is to digest the playbook and play fast while playing technically sound. Make the right blocks (know your zone block rules) and run the right routes (know your man and zone rules). That’s all basic level and just a start but a guy like Lang, it has to start somewhere.