Steelers 2019 Draft Needs @ Tight End – How High of a Priority for Pittsburgh?

The Steelers haven’t built their offense around the tight end position since the early 90s and the days of Eric Green. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not important. The cupboard is a little bare at the moment thanks to the free agent departure of veteran Jesse James, who signed a fairly lucrative deal with the Lions.

Therefore, there’s no question Pittsburgh should draft a tight end. The real question is when?

Vance McDonald, Chris Conte, Vance McDonald stiff arm Chris Conte, Steelers va Buccaneers

Vance McDonald stiff arms Chris Conte into oblivion. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

The Steelers often like to employ two starters at the tight end position, and even though he never put up huge numbers, Jesse James started 34 games over his final three years in Pittsburgh. Despite just starting seven games in 2018, James had his best season in terms of receiving yards with 423.

James took on the role of the number two tight end a year ago, thanks to the emergence of Vance McDonald, who Pittsburgh acquired in a trade with the 49ers just prior to the 2017 regular season. Vance McDonald, 28, had by far the finest season of his career, tallying 50 receptions for 610 yards and four touchdowns.

After several failed attempts, it looks like the Steelers have finally found a more than suitable replacement for the legendary Heath Miller. Not only that, but with his combination of size, speed and athleticism, Vance McDonald appears to give the Steelers the kind of weapon at the position that has tortured their own defense for years.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft:The Backups

Despite the 2018 coming out party of Vance McDonald, again, the Steelers are going to have to find a replacement for James. At first glance, Xavier Grimble, who will be entering his fourth season with Pittsburgh after turning pro in 2014, appears to be a decent candidate to assume James’ old role in the offense.

At 6-4, 261 pounds, Xavier Grimble certainly has the size; he has also shown flashes of athleticism while catching 22 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns. And, at 26, he’s obviously still young enough to evolve into a decent to better veteran tight end in the Steelers offense. The question is, does Pittsburgh trust Xavier Grimble enough to promote him, especially after his boneheaded goal line fumble that turned a sure touchdown into a touchback early in what turned out to be a crushing loss to the Broncos last November 25?

Behind Vance McDonald and Xavier Grimble are players named Jake McGee, Bucky Hodges and Christian Scotland-Williamson, none of whom have ever seen any game action in the NFL.

The Steelers 2019 Tight End Draft Needs

McDonald still has three years remaining on a five-year contract extension he signed with San Fransisco at the end of the 2016 season. That means he likely has the number one tight end spot in Pittsburgh’s offense for as long as he continues to produce. Health is another matter as far as McDonald is concerned, as he suffered through a string of injuries prior to last season.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Provided Vance McDonald stays healthy, he should be a reliable weapon in Pittsburgh’s offense for the next few years. But as I alluded to already, there’s clearly room on Pittsburgh’s depth chart for another tight end.

  • Does this mean the Steelers should draft one in the first, second or even third round?

Before you rule it out, remember that Pittsburgh just lost two of its biggest play-makers in receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell. It wasn’t long ago that the drafting of receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster seemed like a luxury, while the selection of running back James Conner felt like a heartwarming story.

Today, not only are both coming off of Pro Bowl seasons, they’re the two biggest weapons in Ben Roethlisberger‘s arsenal. Point is, if the Steelers have a shot at a talented and athletic tight end, it may not be the worst thing if they drafted him–even with a premium selection. Play-makers are play-makers, and the Steelers need to find them wherever they can. Therefore, the draft priority must be considered Moderate.

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Watch Tower: National Press Declares Open Season on Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger

The Watch Tower’s lights have been dim for quite some time, but that’s due to lack of time and certainly not for lack of material. Today we shine our lights on the national press piling on Pittsburgh in light of the Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell shake ups, some historical background on those two stories, and more.

Ben Roethlisberger, Myles Garret, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers Browns tie

Myles Garrett sacks Ben Roethlisberger in Steelers tie with Browns. Photo Credit: Barry Reger, PennLive.com

National Media Declares Open Season on the Steelers, Roethlisberger

The Pittsburgh Steelers have taken a pounding from the national press. Certainly, the Steelers bear some responsibility. But much of the heat directed at the Steelers is unfounded.

  • Just how bad is it?

Well, when someone like Mark Madden can take the press to task for sloppy journalism, you know things are bad. The facts of the two stories are well established:

  • Antonio Brown quit with the playoffs on the line and then humiliated his team on social media
  • Le’Veon Bell turned down a 70 million dollar contract from the Steelers, held out, and ended up with a smaller contract from the New York Jets.

But you wouldn’t know that if you’d been following the national press. Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell were victims of the Rooneys, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and perhaps worst of all Ben Roethlisberger.

Antonio Brown, Antonio Brown trade, Steelers trade Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin

Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger & Mike Tomlin in happier times. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via BTSC

  • The Watch Tower lacks both time and space to shine its revealing light on each culpable national journalist.

But we will start with what is perhaps the most egregious offender Sport Illustrated’s Robert Klemko. Josh Harris, last seen in the Steelers January 2015 playoff loss to the Ravens, tweeted that Ben Roethlisberger had intentionally fumbled in the 2014 season finale against the Bengals.

Accusing a fellow player of intentionally fumbling is an explosive charge, far more serious than a quarterback calling out a receiver for running the wrong route, but given that Josh Harris’ 9 NFL carry career ended 4 years ago, it likely would have and should have gone unnoticed.

Yet Robert Klemko gave Josh Harris a national platform in a feature length story that included interviews with Harris and Isaac Redman. From a journalistic stand point, that’s a completely ethical story line if you’re objective.

  • But Robert Klemko didn’t even feign objectivity.

Klemko could have requested a response from Roethlisberger, yet gives no indication that he tried. He could have talked to 9 of the other players in the huddle then. He did not. He could have analyzed the video from the play. He did not.

  • When Bruce Gradkowski offered a detailed rebuttal, he could have interviewed Gradkowski and done a follow up story. He did not.

Instead he took the words of Josh Harris, a player whose career doesn’t even merit a footnote in Steelers history, and treated them as if they had come from the Burning Bush. Klemko’s story was so one-sided that Isaac Redman publicly called him out for taking his words out of context.

Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Colts

Happier Times: Antonio Brown & Le’Veon Bell celebrate a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Wolf pack journalism and the use of negative headlines to sell papers er, um, generate clicks are nothing new.

  • But the Watch Tower wonders whether the digital media landscape has exacerbated both tendencies.

Stories from Jenny Vrentas of SI.com and ESPN’s Jeff Darlington perhaps offer examples. For a long time, teams, agents, and players depended on the media to get their message across. Now, thanks to social media, individual actors no longer need third parties to mediate for them.

Yet one of the few ways that independent press outlets can differentiate themselves from the “Content aggregators” is by getting one-on-one access to players.

  • But it seems as if this access is coming at a price.

While it has been normal for agents and PR reps to set ground rules in exchange for interviews, the press still retained leverage. Jenny Vrentas interview with Le’Veon Bell and Jeff Darlington’s interview with Antonio Brown suggest this is changing. Both Bell and Brown made outlandish claims to Vrentas and Darlington, claims that in a serious journalistic context would have been challenged.

Yet neither journalist showed any interest in challenging their subjects in name of finding the truth. If this is indicative of the direction professional sports journalism, then the Watch Tower shudders for its future.

Shout Out for the Good Guys

While the Steelers have largely remained silent against this onslaught of negative news, members of the Pittsburgh press and Steelers-focused bloggers have not.

  • Gerry Dulac, Ed Bouchette, Jim Wexell, Joe Starkey, Mark Kaboly, Mark Madden, Ian Whetstone and Simon Chester, to name just a few, have pushed back.

While their focus has been on the Brown and Bell stories, the national press has seemingly come at the Steelers from every angle. For example, Bill Barnwell (among others) have called out the Steelers for the salary cap of Brown’s 2018 contract re-structure.

Fortunately, scribes like Ian Whetstone have been quick to set the record straight:

Ian Whetstone has been particularly aggressive in this regard, so aggressive that a complete accounting of his efforts could easily fill up an entire column.

  • Ian Whetsonte wins Watch Tower kudos for his effort to promote the truth.

Simon Chester of Behind the Steel Curtain has been a particularly strong voice in the effort to set the record straight. Jesse James free agent defection to Detroit was unfortunate if not unexpected. Jesse James was asked about the situation in Pittsburgh as one might expect.

Jesse James.

Jesse James scores against the Panthers.

  • The national media took a few stray comments from James out of context, and tried to make it sound like his goal was to get out of Pittsburgh as soon as he could.

A full reading of his press conference, reveals a very different attitude. Fortunately, Simon Chester detailed this in a feature length story, which is a welcome benefit to those of us too busy working 10-12 hour days to research the story for ourselves.

And while it would be unfair for the Watch Tower to claim that national press as a whole has refused to admit that Le’Veon Bell lost his gamble, there are no shortage of writers who insist that Bell “won.” Again, Simon Chester was ready with a fact-based refutation of the Bell apologists.

Finally, The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly exposed the NFL Network for splicing together two separate Ben Roethlisberger quotes regarding the infamous route running incident in Denver:

Not that the national media had it out for the Steelers, or anything like that….

Pounding the Pavement on the Brown and Bell Stories

None of what has transpired over the last few months occurred in a vacuum, and the Watch Tower would like to shout out a few journalists who’ve earned their salaries as reporters during the time these stories have evolved.

  • Jeremy Fowler of ESPN earns Watch Tower Kudos for his reporting on both the Brown and Bell stories.

Jeremy Fowler got Le’Veon Bell on the record saying he would report to the Steelers during bye week. Bell of course never showed up, but Fowler was the only journalist to get Bell on the record at that time.

Fowler also provided perhaps the most detailed account of Antonio Brown’s conduct and special treatment by the Steelers organization, even unearthing the Brown didn’t stay at St. Vincent’s during training camp. That was an incredible story that took a lot of diligent reporting to write, and Jeremy Fowler deserves praise for putting it together.

Finally, Jim Wexell also offered an important detail that added important depth to the Bell story by reporting that Le’Veon Bell insisted offered to report late in the season before the deadline but only if the Steelers paid him the full 14.5 million.

Suffice to say, there’s a lot going on, much more than can be contained in this single column. Hopefully the Watch Tower will be back with more much sooner.

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Remember Jesse James Steelers Career for More than the Patriots Touchdown that Wasn’t

Jesse James Steelers career ended last week when he signed with the Detroit Lions. Second string Steelers tight ends don’t occupy much space Steelers lore, and Jesse James as a player won’t change that.

However, Jesse James authored the most pivotal and controversial play of the Steelers post-Super Bowl XLV rebuilding phase.

  • People will remember the Jesse James Play for a long time.

And it is paradoxically unfortunate and appropriate that Pittsburgh will remember Jesse James for that one play.

 

Jesse James, Jesse James Patriots touchdown

Jesse James touchdown that wasn’t vs Patriots. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

It is unfortunate because instant replay robbed Jesse James of what would have been one of the most sensational touchdowns in Steelers regular season history. It is appropriate because had it worked, the play would have perfectly embodied the type of player Jesse James was for the Steelers.

Revisiting the Fateful Steelers-Patriots 2017 Encounter at Heinz Field

Let’s go back to that fateful day. The Steelers, with a Ryan Shazierless defense and with Antonio Brown injured, had actually led the Patriots for most of the game, until Brady-to-Gronk decimated Pittsburgh in the 4th quarter. All hope appeared lost until JuJu Smith-Schuster transformed a sideline pass into a 69 yard gain that brought the Steelers to the New England 10 with 34 seconds left to go.

Here’s what happened next:

It is hard to know who were Ben Roethlisberger’s primary reads on this play. Ben looks and pumps towards Darrius Heyward-Bey but that could have been an intentional fake. JuJu Smith-Schuster could have been his primary receiver, but he was covered. So instead he looked to Jesse James.

  • As well he should have.

Because by that point in his career, Jesse James had developed himself into a dependable receiver who delivered catches when they counted. For those tempted to roll their eyes, take a look at the numbers.

Jesse James, Jesse James Steelers, Jesse James statistics steelers

Jesse James stats with the Steelers

Just how good Jesse James catch rate, how does he stack up against Heath Miller? Heath Miller’s dependability was legendary, and his catch rate was 72%. Jesse James’ catch rate clocks in at 69.4%

Running backs and tight ends catch percentages tend to be higher than receivers because they’re catching higher percentage passes closer to the line of scrimmage. But Jesse James’ catch percentage trended up in Pittsburgh even as did the length of his average reception. In other words, Jesse James no stats compiler who benefited from check down passes.

  • Numbers don’t lie, but statistics sometimes fail to paint an accurate picture.

Both Kordell Stewart and Neil O’Donnell have higher passer ratings than Terry Bradshaw. Anyone want to take either of those over the Blonde Bomber in an all-time Steelers draft? Nope, I didn’t think so. In terms of tight ends, a high catch percentage doesn’t mean much if you drop the ball when the game is on the line (just ask Bert Jones of Super Bowl XIII fame). While he didn’t get a lot of attention for it, Jesse James delivered.

  • In 2016 vs Dallas, Jesse James set up the should have been Roethlisberger-Brown game winner with a 24 yard catch.
  • Jesse James also helped set up Antonio Brown’s game winner against the Ravens on Christmas going 3-3 on targets including nailing a key 3rd down conversion.
  • In the Steelers 2017 win over the Ravens, Jesse James went 10 for 12 on targets, making drive-sustaining catch after drive-sustaining catch, including going 3-3 to set up Chris Boswell’s winner at the buzzer

I wanted to see Jesse James stay in the Black and Gold. But Kevin Colbert made it pretty clear the Steelers weren’t going to offer Jesse James the kind of money he thought he could get on the open market.

  • Jesse James bet on himself and, unlike Le’Veon Bell, his gamble paid off.

Good for him. For as much of quality, under the radar player Jesse James evolved into for the Steelers, Vance McDonald is a much more dynamic player, and a true offensive weapon. The Steelers made the right decision in terms cost-benefit trade off by declining to match the Detroit Lion’s offer.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Jesse James Steelers career deserves to be remember for the quiet dependability he delivered when the game was on the line, not for the play instant replay said he didn’t make over the Patriots.

Good luck in Detroit Jesse James. Steelers Nation will be rooting for your success – as long as it doesn’t come at Pittsburgh’s expense.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Resign Anthony Chickillo, Jordan Berry and Stand Pat on Bud Dupree

The Pittsburgh Steelers have not been idle as free agency has heated up. After coming to terms with Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Steven Nelson, the Steelers turned their attention to their own free agents.

Their first move was the perhaps the biggest surprise, as they resigned backup linebacker Anthony Chickillo. Anthony Chickillo was set to be a free agent and the Steelers wanted him back. However, the size of Anthony Chickillo’s contract amounts to a big of a surprise.

  • Anthony Chickillo signed a 2 year 8 million dollar contract, after turning down a similar offer from the New England Patriots.

The four million dollar per-year average puts Chickillo’s average salary well into range of the NFL’s top starters in that category. Such a contract for Anthony Chickillo would seem to indicate that the Steelers would perhaps be considering moving on from Bud Dupree.

Anthony Chickillo, DeShone Kizer, Steelers vs Browns

Steelers placed an original round restricted free agent tender on Anthony Chickillo . Photo Credit: David Richard, AP via PennLive.com

However, the Steelers have opted not to renegotiate Bud Dupree’s 7.9 million dollar 5th year tender, and now that is guaranteed. The Steelers could still resign Bud Dupree to a long-term deal the summer as the did with David DeCastro, shortly before the 2016 season.

  • The Steelers also resigned punter Jordan Berry to a two year contract.

Jordan Berry has drawn a lot of fire from fans, and his punting average is near the bottom of the league. However, Jordan Berry has improved at directional punting. And perhaps more importantly, past analysis has shown that quality punting for the Steelers holds no correlation to Super Bowl seasons.

Remember, the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII with Mitch Berger handling the punting duties.

Brown, Bell and James Out

With the NFL’s year officially started, the Steelers trade of Antonio Brown to the Raiders became official. As did Le’Veon Bell’s contract with the New York Jets, as well as Jesse James’ with the Detroit Lions. Steel Curtain Rising will have more to say on those departures later.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Has the Steelers Stevan Ridley Reclamation Project Run Its Course?

NFL “Street Free Agents” are just what the name implies. Players who get signed off of the street. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert has a pretty good record when it comes to signing Street Free Agents. Kickers Matt McCrane and Randy Bullock provide to recent examples.

Stevan Ridley is another one of Kevin Colbert’s Street Free Agent signings and his impending free agency provides a good time to assess how well the Stevan Ridley reclamation project has worked.

Stevan Ridley, Steelers vs Patriots

Stevan Ridley rips off a revenge run against the Patriots. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA Today Sports

Capsule Profile of Stevan Ridley Steelers Career

When James Conner got injured in the infamous Steelers 2017 loss to the Patriots, the infamous Jesse James game, Fitzgerald Toussiant was Le’Veon Bell’s only experienced backup. Kevin Colbert wasted little time signing Stevan Ridley who’d been a quality NFL running back before injuries derailed his career in 2014.

Stevan Ridley saw immediate action in the Steelers Christmas win against the Texans and in their season finale against the Browns. The Steelers resigned him in the 2018 off season, and Ridley began the 2018 season as James Conner’s primary backup, ahead of Jaylen Samuels.

Ridley only got 29 carries and saw 3 balls thrown his way, managing a 2.8 yard per carry average. Worse yet, he fumbled twice.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Stevan Ridley

Those statistics don’t paint a pretty picture for Stevan Ridley, and make it hard for build a case for bringing Ridley back to Pittsburgh. On a recent Post-Gazette chat, Gerry Dulac quipped to a reader that Ridley “led the league in 2 yard carries.”

  • It IS true that Stevan Ridley’s ball security are at issue, and that his average is unimpressive.

Yet the sample size is small, and Stevan Ridley also looked good at times, including in the Steelers win over the Patriots. The Steelers need depth at running back, and Stevan Ridley provides an experienced hand behind Conners and Samuels.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Stevan Ridley

Depth in the NFL is about quality not quantity. Stevan Ridley is going to be 30 next season, and 30 year old running backs don’t offer much in the way of “upside.”

It is hard to justify a modest signing bonus and even a roster spot on Stevan Ridley when the Steelers should be looking to fill that role with a young player for the 2019 NFL Draft.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Stevan Ridley

Stevan Ridley’s future in Pittsburgh could largely depend on the Steelers overall approach to building their running back depth chart.

For the last several seasons, the Steelers have opted to go with a starter, a competent backup and untested younger player manning the third running back slot with Roosevelt Nix rounding out the group at fullback.

If the Steelers stick to form, and only carry 3 running backs plus a fullback, it would be a mistake to keep Stevan Ridley as that third running back. However, if the Steelers find a good back to complement James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, a 2019 equlivent of 2008’s Mewelde Moore, than Stevan Ridley could be a good candidate to occupy that 4th slot, much as Gary Russell did in 2008.

However, with Antonio Brown set to leave town, the Steelers will need to add extra bodies at wide receiver to supplement JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and possibly Eli Rogers as targets for Ben Roethlisberger.

That being the case, it is likely that the Steelers Stevan Ridley reclamation project has come to an end.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Jesse James Free Agency: Why the Steelers Should Keep “The Outlaw” in Pittsburgh

Tight ends occupy an peculiar place in Pittsburgh Steelers history. While tight ends such as Larry Brown, Randy Grossman, Bennie Cunningham and Heath Miller have made key contributions in securing the franchise’s six Super Bowls, their roles have often been unheralded.

As a (mostly) backup tight end, Jesse James has done well occupying the role of an unheralded understudy. As he is about to become a free agent, the key question is, has Jesse James done enough to secure a second contract with Pittsburgh?

Jesse James, Jesse James free agent, Steelers vs Panthers.

Jesse James scores a touchdown in the Steelers win over Panthers. Photo Credit: Phillip G. Pavely, USA Today

Capsule Profile of Jesse James Steelers Career

The Steelers drafted Jesse James in the 5th round of the 2015 NFL Draft with an eye towards grooming him to replace Matt Spaeth. James played sparingly as a rookie, starting against Oakland where he scored a 4th quarter touchdown, and playing in the subsequent win against the Colts.

Heath Miller’s retirement and Ladarius Green’s lingering health issues thrust Jesse James into the spotlight in 2016. Jesse James started 13 games and made 39 catches for 339 yards and three touchdowns.

Nonetheless, injuries to Vance McDonald saw Jesse James start 14 games and as he increased his receiving total to 43 catches. In 2018 a healthy Vance McDonald limited Jesse James to seven starts as James saw his reception count drop to 30.

Moreover, James’ role in the passing game tapered off in the later part of the year, even as Ben Roethlisberger threw more and more frequently.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Jesse James

Judged solely on the stats above, Jesse James body of work projects an image of a quality run of the mill backup NFL tight end.

  • Numbers do not lie, but sometimes the truth they tell can be deceptive.

Such is the case with Jesse James. When looking at what Jesse James has brought to the Steelers since 2015, it is better to judge him by the quality of his work, rather than the quantity. Consider:

Those plays illustrate critical contributions that Jesse James has delivered with games on the line in ways that plain numbers simply fail to measure.

With Antonio Brown heading out of Pittsburgh, the Steelers are going to need all of the offensive firepower they can get. Jesse James is not a player who will give opposing defensive coordinators fits.

But Jesse James IS a player who can come up with a critical catch when the games is on the line, and the Steelers must keep him in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Jesse James

When asked about Jesse James at the NFL Scouting Combine, Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert was quite forthcoming: “Jesse’s been a nice complementary tight end to us.”

  • While that is hardly a damming assessment, one must consider the Steelers wider context.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have an urgent need to boost their roster at inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver. They’re also facing close to 20 million dollars in salary cap dead money thanks to the impending Antonio Brown trade.

And that means that spending top dollar on a backup tight end isn’t feasible. Jesse James has had a good career for the Steelers as 5th round picks go, but his time in Pittsburgh has run his course.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Jesse James

Kevin Colbert was even more blunt when asked about the likelihood of Jesse James returning to the Steelers in 2019, when he clarified: “Any of our players that have an opportunity maybe to look elsewhere where they might have a better chance to be a starter, again, we encourage them.”

  • That seems to spell things out pretty clearly.

To keep Colbert’s comments in context, he’s clearly leaving the door open for James to return, but only after encouraging him to look around elsewhere first.

  • In my view, the Steelers are making a mistake by not trying to sign him before he becomes a free agent.

While you don’t break the bank for a backup tight end, the Steelers should be making him a competitive offer. Jesse James is never going to be a game-breaking tight end, but he’s a dependable player who helps you win.

The Steelers should keep the outlaw in Pittsburgh.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Should the Steelers Gamble by Not Giving Xavier Grimble a Restricted Free Agent Tender?

For every NFL rookie that gets a dreaded visit from The Turk, a practice squad slot equals a lifeline to their NFL dream.

  • What they make of that lifeline varies greatly from player to player.

In the case of Pittsburgh Steelers practice squanders, on the one end of the spectrum you have James Harrison who worked his way to NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

On the other hand, you have many more players like Shakim Phillips, who made the Steelers 2015 practice squad, got in invitation back to St. Vincents the next summer where his NFL dream ended. In between you get players like:

  • Ramon Foster, who matured into a solid starter,
  • Isaac Redman the cult-hero who developed into a decent number 2 back before falling to injury
  • Chris Hoke who became an invaluable understudy
  • Justin Brown who shined in practice in 2013 but disappointed on the active roster in 2014

Xavier Grimble is a player who cut his teeth on the Steelers practice squad, an experience which he parlayed into an active roster spot. Now that he’s reached restricted free agent status, his spot on the continuum above will come into clearer focus.

Xavier Grimble, Xavier Grimble fumble, Jack Dempsey, Steelers vs Broncos

Xavier Grimble thinks he has a touchdown, but Will Parks is about to force a fumble. Photo Credit: Jack Dempsey, AP via Tribune-Reivew

Capsule Profile of Xavier Grimble’s Steelers Career

After spending time with the Patriots and the 49ers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2014, Xavier Grimble joined the Steelers practice squad in 2015. In 2016 Xavier Grimble earned a slot on the Steelers active roster behind Jesse James and David Johnson while Ladarius Green sat out in the PAP list.

  • Say what you want about back up Steelers tight ends, they may not catch many passes but when they do, they catch touchdowns.

That was true of Matt Spaeth. Entering the 2015 off season, Matt Spaeth had only caught 53 passes, but 10 of those, or just under 20% went for touchdowns. Xavier Grimble is on a similar path as he has caught 22 passes but three of those have been for touchdowns.

  • Yes, that’s only a 13% touchdown catch rate, but he’s been the number 3 tight end whereas Spaeth was TE number 2.

In three years on the Steelers active roster, Xavier Grimble has appeared in 44 games and made 6 starts, including a touchdown against Cincinnati in 2016, a touchdown in the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens, and a touchdown against the Packers in 2017.

Of course the play that most fans are going to remember is the goal line fumble against Denver where Grimble initiated contact unnecessarily (while holding the ball incorrectly) which cost the Steelers the game, if not the playoffs.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Xavier Grimble

The Steelers have invested a lot Xavier Grimble’s development. After four years, Xavier Grimble clearly won’t morph into the 2nd coming of Bennie Cunningham, let alone Heath Miller.

But arguably,  Xavier Grimble has already contributed more than Preston Gothard did as starting tight end for some mediocre teams in the 80’s.

  • The point is that Xavier Grimble is a serviceable player who provides valuable depth at tight end.

Is Xavier Grimble worth the 2 million plus it would take to offer him a restricted free agent tender? Well, if Jesse James is playing elsewhere in 2019, then the answer might be yes. Even if Jesse James is back, the Steelers would be wise to keep keep this valuable backup in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Xavier Grimble

Practice squad to regular season roster stories may warm the soul, but don’t spontaneously sprout Lombardi Trophies. Sure, Xaiver Grimble is a decent number 3 tight end, but at age 27 he’s reaching the “What you’ve seen is what you’re going to get” phase of his career.

With the Steelers facing the loss of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger is going to need dynamic targets to take heat off of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald.

  • Is Xavier Grimble going to be that person?

No. Even if Grimble makes it to training camp, there’s no assurance he’ll beat out Jake McGee for a roster spot. The Steelers would be better off parting ways with Grimble and bringing in a younger player who offers more promise.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Xavier Grimble

Jesse James’ free agent profile has yet to be published, but I’m going to go ahead and scoop myself and say that the Steelers should resign Jesse James and provide a solid number 2 behind Vance McDonald.

Under that scenario, with Jesse James locked up for 3-4 years, the idea of spending the 2 million plus to put a qualifying restricted free agent tender on Xavier Grimble sounds like salary cap insanity.

  • Moreover, the Steelers certainly could gamble that Xavier Grimble will still be available to be brought back at the veteran minimum if they decline to tender him.

However, Kevin Colbert’s comments at the NFL Scouting Combine indicate that the Steelers will probably let Jesse James test free agency. That makes Xavier Grimble a more valuable commodity to the Steelers, but perhaps not valuable enough to warrant a restricted free agent tender.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Profiling the Steelers 2019 Exclusive Rights Free Agent Class

Exclusive rights free agents are a peculiar NFL breed. They may not be the lowest man on the totem pole, but they’re down there, sort of caught in the NFL CBA’s equivalent of no-man’s land. They don’t have a contract, but they don’t have enough seniority to even talk to another team, let along sign.

They’re kinda like the freshman guys who, even if they can crack the varsity starting lineup, know better than to even look at the hot senior cheerleaders.

The Steelers have a six person 2019 Exclusive Rights Free agent class this year which we profile today.

Matt Feiler,

Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 Exclusive Rights Free Agent Matt Feiler, Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Capsule Profile of Steelers 2019 Exclusive Rights Free Agent Class

Mike Hilton was the guy that wasn’t good enough for Bill Belichick yet came in during Steelers 2017 training camp and earned the job as a starting nickel back. Mike Hilton authored a strong rookie campaign, and although T.J. Watt deserved rookie of the year honors (Joe Greene Great Performance Award, if you insist), Mike Hilton could have been in the conversation.

  • Mike Hilton perhaps plateaued a bit in 2018, as he made fewer splash plays.
  • But the Steelers resigned him in mid January, which was a no brainer.

Ditto Matt Feiler. With Chris Hubbard in Cleveland a bit of panic set in when Marcus Gilbert was injured early in the season. However, Matt Feiler stepped in and started 10 of 11 games, and the line didn’t miss a beat. Plus Filer has position flexibility as he can play guard.

  • Give that man a contract! (The Steelers did that on January 31st.)

Jake McGee is a wild card. After spending 2017 on the practice squad, word was he was set to make a serious run at Xavier Grimble’s roster spot in 2018. Unfortunately, he got injured in OTAs and was lost for the year. Still, with Jesse James reaching unrestricted free agency, and Grimble a restricted free agent, the Steelers moved smartly in bringing McGee back.

Keion Adams is another interesting choice. Outside of T.J. Watt, the Steelers could upgrade at any of the other outside linebacker positions as Bud Dupree isn’t going to turn heads, and Olasunkanmi Adeniyi remains untested. Kion Adams is just as untested, having spent his rookie year on IR and 2018 on the practice squad, but the Steelers have resigned him, and he’ll get another a shot at St. Vincent’s this summer.

Linebacker Keith Kelsey, spent 2017 on the Steelers practice squad and 2018 on injured reserve. The Louisville linebacker will get another shot at NFL glory this summer at St. Vincents.

Malik Golden spent 2017 and 2018 on injured reserve. He’ll get another shot this summer.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and 2019 Exclusive Rights Free Agent Class

The Steelers 2019 free agent class has two guys who’ve already proven themselves to be if not starters, certainly starter capable. It would be a stretch to suggest that Jake McGee and Kion Adams will reach that far, but both could provide valuable depth.

  • As for Kelsey and Golden?

Well, Greg Lloyd arrived in Pittsburgh as an unheralded 6th round pick and lost his rookie season to injury and shortened his sophomore campaign. Just Say’in….
Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers 2019 Free Agency Tracker – Change Sweeping Through Pittsburgh

The NFL’s 2019 free agency signing period begins and one thing is already certain: The winds of change will sweep through the Pittsburgh Steelers roster this spring with a force that has not been seen since the 1990’s.

  • The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers roster is a product of the rebuilding effort that started following Super Bowl XLV.

The Steelers 2019 roster will be very different. Antonio Brown is headed to Oakland and Le’Veon Bell will soon be gone to. The Steelers Killer Bees will be no more. Jesse James is reported to be headed to Detroit. Others will follow.

Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Colts

Happier Times: Antonio Brown & Le’Veon Bell celebrate a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Every NFL team endures change, but true championship teams come to embrace it. Here’s a look at the Steelers 2019 free agents, their free agent pickups as well as losses.

Steelers 2019 Free Agent Signings

3/13/2019 – Steelers sign Steven Nelson, Cornerback from Kansas City to 3 year contract.
3/13/2019 – Steelers resign Anthony Chickillo to 2 year contract.
3/13/2019 – Steelers resign Jordan Berry to 2 year contract
3/14/2019 – Steelers resign Eli Rogers to 2 year contract
3/14/2019 – Steelers sign Donte Moncrief to 2 year contract
3/14/2019 – Steelers sign Daniel McCullers to 2 year contract
3/19/2019 – Steelers sign Mark Barron to 2 year contract

Steelers 2019 Free Agent Losses

3/13/2019 – Jesse James signs with Detroit Lions
3/13/2019 – Le’Veon Bell signs with New York Jets (for less money than the Steelers offered. Just say’n)
3/13/2019 – Steelers trade Antonio Brown to Raiders for a $3 Starbucks card and 5 box tops (er, um a 3rd and 5th round pick
3/14/2019 – L.J. Fort signs 3 year contract with Philadelphia Eagles

Steelers 2019 Unrestricted Free Agents

Click on the player’s name below for a feature length free agent profile.

Le’Veon Bell
Ramon Foster
Steelers resigned Ramon Foster to 2 year contract 3/8/2019
Tyson Alualu
Steelers resigned Tyson Alualu to 2 year contract 2/22/19
Jordan Berry
Ryan Shazier
Anthony Chickillo
Coty Sensabaugh
Darrius Heyward-Bey
Daniel McCullers
Justin Hunter
Nat Berhe
Stevan Ridley
L.J. Fort
Eli Rogers
Jesse James
L.T. Walton

Steelers 2019 Restricted Free Agents

Xavier Grimble
Steelers offered original round tender to Xavier Grimble, 3/8/2019
B.J. Finney
Steelers offered 2nd round tender to B.J. Finney 3/8/2019

Steelers 2019 Exclusive Rights Free Agents

Mike Hilton
Steelers offer ERFA tender to Mike Hilton, 3/8/2019
Matt Feiler
– Steelers offer ERFA tender to Matt Feiler, 3/8/2019
Jake McGee
Keith Kelsey
Malik Golden
Keion Adams

The Steelers have already been busy in free agency, signing Tyson Alualu to a 2 year contract extension and informing Le’Veon Bell that they will not place the transition tag on him.

  • In the coming days Steel Curtain Rising will be publishing profiles of each of the Steelers 2019 free agents, following the same formula that we’ve used for the last several off seasons.

We’ll begin with a capsule summary of the player’s career as a Steeler, the strongest argument one could possibly make in favor of resigning the player, the strongest possible case arguing against resigning the player, followed by our “Curtain’s Call” describing what we think will and should happen.

You’ll be able to access all Steelers 2019 Free Agent profiles by clicking on our Steelers 2019 free agent focus category tag.

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Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card – Under Achieving or Just Average? Neither Was Good Enough

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is resigned to the reality that his once thought to be special class is really just average, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 Regular Season Report Card.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomlin following the Steelers loss at Oakland. Photo Credit: Ben Margot, AP via Tribune Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing, something no Pittsburgh Steeler has done since Jim Finks in 1955. That’s good. But it came at a cost of 16 interceptions. That’s bad, but is interception rate was 2.4, which was better than last year and better than his career average. The problem is that Ben’s picks at inopportune times, and that lowers grade below where other statistics might suggest it should be. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
Le’Veon who? James Conner took over the starting running back role and performed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. When Conner got hurt, Jaylen Samuels proved he is at least a viable number 2 NFL running back. Despite a nice run or two, Stevan Ridley failed to show he was a viable number 3 NFL running back.

  • The key knock against the running backs revolves around ball security.

Fumbles by running backs proved to be critical turning points in 3 games in which the Steelers needed wins and didn’t get them. Grade: B-

Tight Ends
Vance McDonald might not be Pittsburgh’s version of Gronk, but he’s an offensive weapon who can do damage anywhere on the field. Jesse James role in the passing game declined as the season wore on, but he proved himself to be a reliable target, and his block has improved. Xavier Grimble did have a critical fumble, but is a serviceable number 3 NFL tight end. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
Due to either injury or attitude, Antonio Brown started slowly in 2018, but by season’s end he was in championship form (on the field….) JuJu Smith-Schuster made a tremendous 2nd year leap, revealing himself as a budding super star. James Washington struggled to find his footing, but flashed tremendous potential, whereas Justin Hunter never justified his roster spot. Ryan Switzer proved to be a decent 4th wide out while Eli Rogers gave this offense a boost. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
This is a hard grade to offer, because for much of the season Ben Roethlisberger had “diary-writing quality” pass protection. Nonetheless, defenses managed to get to Ben late in the season, and in Oakland when the Steelers had a rookie runner, the run blocking just wasn’t there. To call this unit “inconsistent” would be grossly unfair, but their performance fell short of the level of excellence needed. Grade: B+

Stephon Tuitt, Anthony Chickllo, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward led the unit with 8 sacks with Stephon Tuitt following with 5.5 sacks and he increased his QB hit number from 2017. Both men improved their tackle totals. Javon Hargrave had a strong third year with 6.5 sacks. Tyson Alualu, Daniel McCullers and L.T. Walton functioned as role players. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt exploded in his second year leading the Steelers with 13 sacks and six forced fumbles. The move to the weak side helped Bud Dupree although his sack total was 5.5, down from 2017, but his pressures, tackles and pass deflections were up. Anthony Chickillo proved he is a viable NFL 3rd OLB. On the inside Jon Bostic clearly upgraded the position from where it was at the end of 2017, but his coverage ability remains suspect. L.J. Fort fared much better in coverage but is far from being an impact player. Vince Williams had another solid year.

Overall the Steelers 2018 linebackers were OK but, outside of T.J. Watt, lack anything resembling a difference maker. Grade: C

T.J. Watt, Matt Ryan, T.J. Watt Matt Ryan strip sack, Steelers vs Falcons

T.J. Watt strip sacks Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: AP, via Sharon Herald

Secondary
In some ways, the whole of the Steelers secondary was less than the sum of its parts. Joe Haden is the group’s clear leader. In contrast, Artie Burns regressed, while Coty Sensabaugh quietly developed into a competent NFL cornerback. Mike Hilton gives the Steelers a solid presence at nickel back. Sean Davis’ move to free safety proved to be fruitful, as he helped eliminate the long gains that plagued the unit a year ago. Terrell Edmunds took some time to find his footing as you’d expect for a rookie, but played well in the strong safety spot, as did Morgan Burnett.

While the Steelers secondary made progress in 2018, performance and results drive grades and the chronic 4th quarter touchdowns given up by this unit reveals that the Steelers secondary wasn’t good enough. Grade: D

Chris Boswell, Nick Nelson, Steelers vs Raiders

Chris Boswell. Photo Credit: Ross Cameron, AP via Tribune, Review

Special Teams
Ryan Switzer gave the Steelers the first consistency they’ve enjoyed in the return game for quite some time and he ranked 13th league wide in punt returns. However, the Steelers gave up an average of 14.4 yards on punt returns which is terrible, although the Steelers kick coverage ranked near the top of the NFL.

Jordan Berry takes a lot of flack, and he did struggle at the beginning of the year, but his punting was solid if not spectacular by season’s end. Fans who object to this should remember that quality punting has never correlated with championships for the Steelers.

  • The key player here is Chris Boswell, who struggled all year. Arguably, missed kicks cost the Steelers 2 games.

Factor in the Steelers leading the league in special teams penalties, and the picture is pretty bleak. Yes, Danny Smith’s men did block two field goals, executed a fake field goal, and partially blocked a punt, which pulls the grade up a bit. Grade: D

Coaching
Randy Fichtner took over the Steelers offense and we saw some immediate improvements, particularly in Red Zone conversions. The Steelers also converted slightly more 3rd downs, although their ranking was down. Given that the Steelers played most of the season without a legit 3rd wide receiver those accomplishments speak even better of Fichtner.

  • However, Randy Fichtner’s offense still had issues.

The Steelers struggled, and failed, to add to leads. And as the season wore on, it became pass heavy to a fault. Injuries dictated some of this, but more passes led to more interceptions.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler is probably the 2nd least popular man in Pittsburgh now. And to some degree that is understandable, as 4th quarter leads evaporated in November and December faster than an ice sickle in July.

  • But how much of that is Keith Butler’s fault?

It is hard to say, but film analysis by “Heinzsight” over on 247 Sports Pittsburgh concludes that on many of the critical plays that doomed Pittsburgh, Steelers linebackers and defensive backs were in the right places but failed to make plays (think Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds vs. Seth Roberts.)

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

  • If Keith Butler is the 2nd most unpopular man in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin paces him by a mile.
  • I haven’t jumped on the #FireTomlin bandwagon yet and will not start today.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Jaguars

Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Karl Rosner

Mike Tomlin didn’t fumble those balls, throw those picks, let those interceptions bounce off of his hands or miss those kicks that cost the Steelers so dearly. I’m also in the camp that says Mike Tomlin’s ability to pacify Antonio Brown for as long as he has, speaks well of his coaching abilities. (Scoffing? Fair enough. But Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin two disciplinarian’s disciplinarian struggled with their Diva wide receivers.)

  • His one clear coaching mistake was holding Ben Roethlisberger out of the game in Oakland, and it cost the team the playoffs.

And given that the Steelers play against the Saints suggests that this team could have actually made a Super Bowl run, that decision amounts to a huge miscalculation on Mike Tomlin’s part, because draft picks come and go, but Lombardi’s stay forever. Grade: D

Front Office
This is the first, and perhaps last time the Front Office has appeared on a Steelers Report Card. But they are here because of the ripple effects of one calculated risk they took on using the second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell.

Mike Tomlin, Le'Veon Bell

Mike Tomlin & Le’Veon Bell. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Yahoo! sports

Integrity demands I acknowledge that I supported this move, arguing it was perhaps what both sides needed.

The error didn’t come in franchising Bell, but in failing to adequately prepare for his failure to show up. When James Conner got hurt, the decision to keep Justin Hunter on the roster instead of trying to sign 2018’s equivalent of Mewelde Moore perhaps did as much damage to the Steelers Super Bowl hopes as Tomlin’s blunder in the Black Hole. Grade: D

Unsung Hero
There could be several candidate here for this slot, but we’re going to settle for someone who truly embodied the “Next Man Up” philosophy, and did so in relative anonymity. Once again injuries derailed Marcus Gilbert’s season, but this year Chris Hubbard was in Cleveland. Not that you would have noticed, because Matt Feiler, stepped in and the Steelers offensive line never missed a beat and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2018 season.

 

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