Devil’s Advocate: Grimble Tops TE Depth Chart

You may recall for the past several offseasons that I ran an article series called The Optimist’s/Pessimist’s Take. I used it to explore different issues and topics the Pittsburgh Steelers were facing and took a positive or negative approach, examining each side in a separate article. This is essentially the same idea behind that, only condensed into one article for every topic.

In this version of the idea, I’ll be playing the Devil’s Advocate for both sides of the issue, looking at the best-case and worst-case scenarios in trying to find the range of likely outcomes of what is likely to happen for the Steelers relating to whatever topic the article is covering.

When it comes to the process of trying to construct a championship roster, the reality is that there are a ton of moving parts, and several ways to acquire said parts. There are a lot of things that can go right or wrong in not always predictable ways, so I think it’s helpful to try to look at issues by seeking out the boundaries of the likely positive or negative results.

Topic: Does Xavier Grimble have a reasonable shot of becoming the Steelers’ primary tight end by the end of the season?

If you happen to follow Bob Labriola’s Asked and Answered series on the Steelers’ website, you may have caught yesterday’s edition, in which a fan asked the reporters who be believed would make the biggest impact at the tight end position behind Jesse James.

Labriola was pretty clear in stating that it was second-year Xavier Grimble, and he even went so far as to say in concluding that, “if [he] can become more consistent, starting with catching the football, maybe he makes a run at the top of the depth chart”.

This comment, on the face of it, seems absurd, given the clear disparity in production and in snap counts between the different tight ends over the course of last season. Grimble barely made the initial 53-man roster only because Ladarius Green was on the PUP List.

James was nearly an every-down player for the Steelers at multiple times last season, and we also saw clear growth from him over the course of this year. Some of his most productive games as a receiver and as a blocker came late in the year, even in the postseason.

But the notion of Grimble chipping away at James’ playing time, and perhaps even logging the lion’s share of snaps, might not be that absurd. One should consider that in the games leading up to Green’s return from the PUP list, Grimble was actually increasing his snap count significantly, and even played more than James.

Things changed up with Green back, but after the free agent suffered his concussion, Grimble suffered a rib injury on a touchdown reception on the very next drive the Steelers played, a week later, limiting his ability to contribute further.

With both players demonstrating improvement over the year, and since the season ended, one might be more inclined to question how set in stone the depth chart is, or should be. One thing is for sure, Grimble looks to be in peak physical conditioning.

Which side do you lean closer toward?

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • falconsaftey43

    I’m not sure of the likely hood, but it would be nice if Grimble could become a regular contributor, and the James didn’t have to do it all on his own, as that seems to be asking a lot of him.

  • Steelers12

    yeah Grimble’s athleticism could play a big factor, Damn if only Green could of stayed healthy

  • Michael Mosgrove

    i actually have more hope for grimble than i do for james.

  • Bradys_Dad

    I’m not all that disappointed with this duo (or trio w/Johnson) even though there’s no big name associated with the TE position here at home. If they can all block and they can all make short “save Ben’s butt” catches over the middle to move the chains then they’ve done their job in this offensive scheme. The WR crew and the threat of LB out of the backfield will have the opposing secondaries too busy to worry about short pick-ups by our TEs. The TE is the safety valve for the passing game and these guys seem more than capable.

  • pittsburghjoe

    James is solid and nothing more… he offers a some degree of comfort in both the passing game and running game. Its seems like Grimble has upside over James in terms of stretching the field. So now it comes down to the great “what if” game. Only time will tell if XG can put a consistent game together. He seems to have the tools. We will know soon enough.

  • Rocksolid20

    Can you let it rest ? He is gone , we need to work with what we have .

  • pittsburghjoe

    If XG progresses, their TE depth is actually pretty solid. It may not be great, but by no means is it a liability. Thats all they need from the position, they have so many other targets that this really is not a big deal.

  • tcirish53@gmail.com

    I think Grimble has some of the tools but definitely is short in that consistency bucket.
    I could very easily see the two platooning at TE, as it appears the team has the same disdain for the TE position that they USED to have for CB!!!
    As you can probably surmise, I wanted us to take a TE this past draft, especially in lieu of our latest 3rd string QB acquisition!!!! 😑

  • Charles Mullins

    This again? Didnt we have enough XG hype last summer.

  • Geoffrey Benedict

    Grimble is popular among people who want an athletic receiving TE, which I find amusing.

    Grimble is a terrible athlete, he’s slower and has worse agility and length than James, and he is 2 years older.

    People often act like at 22 James has hit his ceiling, while Grimble, at 24 has a lot of room to improve.

    I just don’t see it. Heck last season, even while Grimble was gaining snaps, James was outproducing him, and when you look at the playoffs last year, James was our second most productive receiver, ahead of Rogers, Bell and Hamilton. He recorded a 73% catch rate and 9.13 yards per target.

    James at 22 was a better blocker than Grimble was at 24, Jesse is still filling out his frame, and he hasn’t hit his prime yet. Grimble is already there. There is a chance it all clicks for Grimble at 25 and he starts playing at a higher level, but that isn’t likely. It is much more likely, if fact it is probable, that James improves by a good margin in his age 23 season.

  • SkoolHouseRoxx

    It could happen, but he gotta get them hands right. Everyone hates Sammie, but Grimble drops balls without broken fingers. I love both Grimble and Outlaw as a tandem tho.

  • capehouse

    Lets be real here. Grimble’s snap counts increased significantly in only 2 games, against the Pats and Ravens, and he played more than James just once, against the Ravens, which amounted to 1 target, while James had 4 in that same game. Grimble’s increased snap counts also coincided with the loss in production from Sammie Coates, which leads you to believe the Steelers were searching for an alternate weapon. I think Grimble proved he is nothing more than a role player though. There is no more hype with Grimble. He’s an athletic TE with a lot of inconsistencies.

    Here’s there snap counts the last 7 weeks of the season including the playoffs.

    James: 50, 29, 49, 61, 45, 59, 67
    Grimble: 0, 8, 9, 0, 2, 2, 4

    So yes the notion that Grimble is chipping away at James’ playing time is completely absurd.

  • Guillermo Garcia-Gomez

    Not arguing that he’s a better player, and I don’t have 40 times in front of me, but didn’t Grimble look much more athletic than Jesse James last year? I’m just thinking back to catches I remember both having. James generally caught the ball at about 10 yards and fell down, while Grimble had some deep seam catches of 15-20 yards (bengals and ravens come to mind). The deeper catches would seem to indicate he’s faster and better at stretching the seam.

  • Matt Manzo

    I lean on the “it’s too early to tell” side with Grimble. He was definitely improving but the injury wiped out any chance of seeing what he’s capable of, as far as consistency goes.
    This is his chance to prove what he’s got! He’s gonna get so many looks this pre season!

  • Matthew Marczi

    Yeah, and he made the roster and played well in his limited opportunities.

  • Matthew Marczi

    A lot of these claims are wrong. Starting with the notion that James is a better blocker, and that Grimble, at the surly age of 24, is already at his peak. You can look at numbers all you want, but when you actually watch the two on the field, Grimble is clearly the more athletic of the two, and the coaches realize that, and use him accordingly.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Don’t bother. To some people the only things that matter are the agility numbers down on paper. Nevermind the fact that Grimble is a few years removed from his college days and is clearly in better shape right now than he’s ever been. Yes, he is more athletic than James.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Are you seriously just going to completely ignore the fact that Grimble’s snap counts declined late in the season because of Green returning, and that when Green suffered a concussion, Grimble was featured on the very next drive the Steelers had, sealing said drive with an athletic touchdown reception? He suffered a rib injury making that catch that limited him throughout the rest of the year. You can verify that by googling it and seeing coaches comment on it.

    To recap, as the season progressed, Grimble’s playing time increased until Green returned. After Green exited, he looked to be in for a bigger role, but very quickly suffered a rib injury that nixed that plan.

    You also ignore the fact that with Grimble’s fewer snaps came more snaps for David Johnson instead. The Steelers were not using James as an every-snap guy at the end of the year because they didn’t want to give him that workload.

  • Geoffrey Benedict

    My point is more that at that time Grimble put up terrible numbers. like bottom 2% numbers. He is a better route runner than James, he looks smoother in his cuts, and if that is how you are judging Athleticism, then yeah, he’s more athletic.

    But if Xavier Grimble is faster, more agile, better jumper than Jesse James, then that is improvement he made after the age of 22, which is where James was last season.

    The things Jesse James needs to improve on are things players commonly improve on at his age. I came across worse than I intend because the Xavier Grimble love annoys me. At 24 he had worse production per target than a player 2 years younger than him. But people are all over him like he’s going to leap over James and take the starting job.

    But where is he going to get better? He’s a better route runner than James and yet James still did more with each target. I see Grimble playing with more polish and James looking less awkward than he used to, but still not polished at all.

    James finished last year by being our #2 producing receiver in the playoffs, while Grimble received only a few snaps each game and no production. I think it is more likely that James is set up for a good season in his third year, at age 23 (both marks when players typically improve) than it is that Xavier Grimble is going to improve more than James, enough to start.

  • Geoffrey Benedict

    They used him accordingly, by sitting him on the bench.

    If James isn’t a better blocker, receiver or more athletic, and the Steelers see that, then how is starting James and giving him more snaps signs that they are using Grimble accordingly?

  • Guillermo Garcia-Gomez

    I think this guy either went to Penn state or Grimble stole his gf. Grimble clearly more athletic and better at stretching the field, James clearly more consistent. It’s that simple lol

  • Conserv_58

    I see you totally disregarded what Green’s situation had on Grimble’s snap counts. Furthermore, Bob Labriola has a much more intimate knowledge of what the team thinks of their players than we do. Labriola is a no nonsense kind of guy. He doesn’t mince words or puts lipstick on a pig either.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Both of them are inconsistent. Did you not notice that David Johnson was taking a lot of reps as the lone tight end on the field (barring Hubbard as an extra lineman) toward the end of the season? Still, while James was the less powerful blocker, he was the slightly more consistent of the two, and they had more experience with him. At each respective point in their careers, James was the more well-rounded in terms of being a do-everything tight end, so when Green returned as the receiving option, Grimble’s role was reduced. With Green now gone, if Grimble actually becomes a consistent performer, it’s conceivable that James becomes solidified as the do-everything-but-nothing particularly-impressively number-two tight end. A more reliable receiver than Matt Spaeth, but a worse blocker. Yet we still can’t ignore the fact that the last game in which both of them were healthy and viewed as the top two tight ends on the depth chart, Grimble logged more snaps.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Again, Grimble was dealing with a rib injury in the playoffs, and since the last snap of the first drive of the Ravens game. He would in all likelihood have had a bigger role at the end of the season had he not gotten injured. And now that he has gotten a taste of what it’s like to prepare for and play on Sunday, he knows what it takes, and the coaches know what to expect from him. I think it’s more likely than not that James remains the top tight end, but I don’t want to discount the alternative. But the onus is on Grimble to step up and prove that he can be much more consistent.

  • Conserv_58

    Of course J.J.’s league worst YAC numbers don’t enter the equation with you. J.J. may be still filling out his frame and has yet to hit his prime, but there is no denying that he’s not going to get any faster either. You can’t teach speed. Jessie James will never threaten Heath Millers team records either.

  • Charles Mullins

    Fun fact. According to Wikipedia JJ had a better 40 than XG. If he would have played well he wouldn’t have had limited time. He is at best a serviceable back up. Where was the Matt Speth Hype?

    “Needs to get stronger and could use more glass in his diet. Average balance. Narrow-based, underpowered, in-line blocker — gets manhandled and tossed aside. Releases tall and mechanically — too easily jammed and rerouted. Linear mover who builds to speed. Has been dinged up and durability could be an issue. Recorded a 26 1/2-inch vertical jump, lowest of any tight end at the combine. Recorded a 4.85-second 20-yard shuttle time at his pro day, demonstrating poor agility.”

  • capehouse

    I thought this was about Grimble cutting into James’ snap counts, not Green. Of course Grimble’s snap counts decreased when Green returned. Just sticking to the subject. David Johnson’s snap counts didn’t change on average much throughout the entire season except 2 games he didn’t have double digits which were both early in the season. I don’t see how him having snaps over Grimble is a positive spin towards what you’re arguing anyway.

    Listen, my main point is that Grimble’s high snap counts were a flash in the pan. An attempt to find a weapon when they were lacking Bryant, Wheaton and Green, but his inconsistencies killed any hope of that. In the games after Green’s concussion, Grimble played in all of them yet still barely saw the field. Yeah he had cracked ribs, but he still dressed for games, saw some offensive snaps and played specialteams. If he couldn’t play he wouldn’t be out there in the first place.

  • Charles Mullins

    JJ’s 40 time was better than XG’s.

  • Dan

    Eh, Grimble’s ceiling is an okay TE. Which is about James’ current level.

  • Dshoff

    I like James, I like Grimble. I think Grimble has much more potential than James. And Grimble was just getting ready to break out when he got his ribs hurt. I was very excited to see that Ravens game hoping that it was time for him to shine. I think he was MUCH more consistent last year and had some very nice catches and plays. I could care less are 40 times when they came out of college, Grimble is faster and more athletic. But I’m a big James fan as well.

  • SteeltheKing

    He was inconsistent last year, made enough plays to make him an intriguing option. I think James is the starter, but we will see a lot of 2 TE sets so Grimble will have a decent amount of snaps. He is why I wasn’t mad the Steelers did not draft a TE.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Here are some more fun facts. For starters, Grimble was dealing with a calf injury during the pre-draft process, which is why he didn’t run at the Combine. It’s pretty reasonable to assume that he was still affected by it at his Pro Day. Additionally, there is the glaringly obvious fact that players can improve over the course of time in terms of muscle, weight, speed, and other factors. Grimble obviously plays faster than is suggested by his workout numbers.

  • Matthew Marczi

    You don’t see how the guy they paid $20 million for taking his snaps is relevant to the discussion?

    In the Steelers’ eyes, Green and Grimble served a similar niche, which is one that they wanted to inject into their offense. As the season progressed, and Green was still on the PUP, they began to feed Grimble more snaps that Green would have gotten. Obviously that became unnecessary when Green returned. But when Green suffered a concussion, we saw evidence on the next drive they had that they were interested in incorporating Grimble into the scheme more once again. Only that plan went awry due to the rib injury that he suffered.

    Your argument about dressing yet not playing means that they simple didn’t want to play him is invalidated by how they used Coates, Nix, and probably others as well while they were injured. Darrius Heyward-Bey as well.

  • Conserv_58

    Big deal. His 40 times mean nothing when J.J.’s league worst YAC numbers are the true barometer.

  • Mr jack

    Gimble will be the starter,much better TE

  • Andrew Norwood

    What exactly was the “injury”? Sore ribs, bruised ribs, broken ribs? Grimble has had a availability issues dating back to college right? Maybe JJ will always be better than him because he can take the punishment. He made a big play vs the Ravens. Other than that, I have no idea where all the love comes from. I think we would’ve drafted a TE if things had fallen right.

  • capehouse

    Yeah I agree Grimble is similar to Green as an athletic Flex TE. In fact, looking back now, I think Grimble received the increased snap counts against the Pats and Ravens in part to prep the offense for Green’s arrival the next week against the Cowboys. James was also having issues with blocking, and the Steelers had no receiving options outside of AB.

    But none of that has anything to do with the subject of Grimble possibly being the #1 TE over James, which is what my post is about. If Grimble was a better TE than James, than Grimble would’ve put James on the bench when he came back from that quad injury. He didn’t though, because James had improved A LOT. You can suggest the rib injury is the reason Grimble didn’t factor into the playoffs much, but that’s not a fact. He wasn’t limited in practice at any point in the playoffs. He was full participation leading up to the game against the Dolphins and taken off the injury report all together after that. The injury didn’t stop Grimble from getting snaps in the playoffs, James did. That is a fact. James improved play was on display all throughout the playoffs against some of the best competition. His blocking game against the Dolphins, and his receiving game against the Chiefs and Patriots.

    Don’t get me wrong. I like Grimble. He’s an underrated blocker and a nice Flex option, but he’s not an all-around TE, and he’s inconsistent in his routes, his hands and with his knowledge of the offense. James’ job as the #1 TE is secure as far as Grimble is concerned. I expect to see James’ snap counts this year on par with the games against the Chiefs and Patriots when he received 88% and 97% of the snap counts.

  • capehouse

    Your point is the same as Marcizi’s, so I’m just going to disregard you too.

  • capehouse

    Oh nice, bring up a point about his speed and then say it means nothing when you’re proven wrong lol.

  • capehouse

    Then I have no hope for you.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    oh darn.

  • capehouse

    Seriously. Go rewatch the 3 playoff games and tell me James didn’t perform like a #1 TE.

  • Romel Roze

    Grimble appears to have the tools to be a really good receiving TE. We just need to see him grow and learn the offense. It is always hard to contribute as a youngster, but he made some big plays in big moments for us. He has more potential than James but his potential need to be displayed on the field. Hopefully, he is the reason they were so quick to let Green go after the failed physical. If he lives up to his potential and Martavis stays clean the offense could be extremely explosive.

  • Russ Stauver

    I think which ever TE can get down the seam the best is the better TE. With Rogers and JuJu eating up the slot, XG would have my nod. He just has to improve his hands.

  • Matthew Marczi

    The coaches said that he was limited due to the rib injury. I think Ben said it too, as in ‘it’s too bad he got injured because we could have used him more’.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    i dont have to. his catch is average. his pass blocking is suspect, his blocking is suspect and he had sone of the worst yacs int he league.

  • capehouse

    Young. Improved. Watch the playoff games again. That’s who he is now. Not the YAC guy you’re referring to during the season.