Steelers Sign David Johnson, Is Matt Spaeth’s Roster Spot in Jeopardy?

The Pittsburgh Steelers have signed tight end and fullback David Johnson, who returns to the team following his departure as a free agent in 2014.

Few if any outside of the South Side are privileged to hear Kevin Colbert’s conversations with outgoing free agents, but one can only imagine that Colbert’s parting words include some variant of “We’ll leave the light on for you.”

  • In contrast to his predecessor, Tom Donahoe, Kevin Colbert has readily welcomed back departed free agents.

The Steelers drafted David Johnson in the 7th round of the 2009 NFL Draft, and Johnson worked in as a tight end/fullback. Todd Haley wanted to convert David Johnson into a full time to fullback, but Johnson unfortunately tore his ACL during the 2012 preseason. ACL Tear. In 2013 Johnson recovered, but injuries to Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, along with the emergence of Will Johnson at fullback, forced Johnson to take the starting tight end role.

Johnson performed well enough, but alas was injured in early in the season.

The Steelers allowed Johnson to depart, and he landed in San Diego, where, per Pro Football Reference, he appeared in 30 games and started 6. Johnson’s projected role in his return with the Steelers has not been formally clarified, but expectations are that he will play in a tight end and/or H-Back role.

  • Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell has pointed out that since 2011, the Steelers have opened every season with 4 tight ends.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Chris Adamanski adds that the Steelers only use a fullback on 1/10 of their offensive plays, and appear to be more or less set at the position with Roosevelt Nix.

Matt Spaeth’s Roster Spot in Jeopardy?

As of know the Steelers depth chart at tight end looks like this: Ladarius Green is number one, followed by veteran Matt Spaeth, “rising sophomore” Jesse James holds down the third spot, while 2015 practice squad alumni Xavier Grimble is penciled in as the number 4 man. Undrafted rookie free agent Jay Rome also has a roster spot.

  • The player most threatened by David Johnson’s return is Matt Spaeth.

While Matt Spaeth’s unheralded return has most certainly played a role in the rushing success and pass protection enjoyed by Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams and Ben Roethlisberger, Spaeth is 33 years old has a 1 million dollar base salary with just over 100,000 dollars in signing bonus money allocated to him. Assuming David Johnson signed for the veteran minimum, the Steelers could get younger while saving on the salary savings by cutting Spaeth in favor of Johnson.

  • But for that to happen, Johnson would clearly need to beat out Spaeth.

Spaeth’s role as a blocker up front might go largely unnoticed by fans and even the press, but rest assured that Mike Tomlin, Mike Munchak and Todd Haley appreciate it. That, combined with Johnson’s own injury history will place the burden on Johnson.

Competition tends to bring out the best, and the Steelers have given themselves a low-risk option to bolster their depth at tight end. Welcome back to Steelers Nation David Johnson!

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