The Pittsburgh Steelers made their first move in free agency today by coming to terms with former Arizona Cardinals and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Leonard Pope.
Pope’s addition adds a touch of mystery into the mix for the Steelers at the tight end position.
Health Miller is the incumbent starter and his status is of course unaffected by the move.
David Johnson got a restricted free agent tender from the Steelers, and figures to be back.
Saunders, however presents more of a mystery.
Saunders went undrafted during the 2011 NFL draft because of disciplinary issues in college, but prior to that many had felt he could go as high as the second round.
The Steelers signed him as an unrestricted rookie free agent in 2011 with an eye towards developing him as a pass catching threat. During his rookie campaign, Saunders played in all 16 games, starting 5 of them, but only caught four passes.
Since that time things have not gone well for Saunders, who is currently facing a 4 game suspension to start the 2012 season for violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
The Steelers normally keep only three tight ends on their roster, and the addition of Pope gives them four. Pittsburgh would get a roster exemption during Saunder’s suspension, but the Steelers remain pressed for salary cap space, which could put Saunder’s roster spot in jeopardy.
Ironically, Saunder’s lone touchdown catch came during the Steelers Monday Night escape/victory vs. the Kansas City Chiefs.
Lenoard Pope has started 49 games in his NFL career, including 10 last year for Kansas City where he caught 24 passes for 247 yards and one touchdown. Those numbers are not terribly impressive, but they are double what David Johnson did last year in 16 starts at tight end and fullback.
Pope has a long relationship with Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley, another factor which works in his favor.