Steelers 2018 Tight End Draft Needs Hinge on Vance McDonald & Jesse James Future in Pittsburgh

While the Pittsburgh Steelers perhaps can’t boast of the same type of legacy of excellence at tight end that they do at other position areas, the services of Mark Bruener and Heath Miller did allow the franchise to enjoy (almost) two straight decades of high-level stability at tight end.

Whilethe Steelers tight ends ended 2017 on an up note, Pittsburgh has seen false starts at tight end in the last two years. In looking at the 2018 NFL Draft, the question the Steelers need to answer for themselves is, was the success they experienced at the end of 2017 is sustainable or just another Sisyphean attempt to replace Heath Miller’s legendary dependability.

Vance McDonald, Jesse James

Vance McDonald with Jesse James. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter

The Steelers have been full of suprises at tight end of late. Last spring, after passing on drafting a tight end in a draft that was said to be deep at the position, the Steelers cut Ladarius Green a few weeks later.

Vance McDonald took time to work his way into the Steelers offense, and injuries sidelined him for six games during various points in the season. But, by the year’s end, Vance McDonald was the undisputed starter. Early on word was the McDonald dropped too many passes in practice.

However, during the later half of the year, Vance McDonald and Ben Roethlisberger developed a strong rapport, and McDonald started coming up with the ball at critical times, including making 10 catches on 16 targets in the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

By all accounts, the Vance McDonald trade was prompted by Jesse James’ lack luster training camp and preseason performance. Nonetheless, Jesse James had as strong 2017 campaign. He caught 68% of the passes thrown his way, and came up especially big (along with McDonald) in the Steelers last second win against the Ravens.

  • Jesse James blocking still must improve, but he’s delivering solid value as a 2nd tight end.

Behind Jesse James, the Steelers have Xavier Grimble, who completed his second year on the active roster after 2015 on the Steelers practice squad. In those two years Grimble has show himself to be a competent 3rd tight end, and an able receiver although he his blocking has not stood out.

Steelers 2018 Tight End Draft Needs

The Steelers have a solid starter at tight end, an excellent number 2 tight end and a serviceable number 3 tight end, so Pittsburgh set at the position heading into the 2018 NFL Draft right?

Not so fast.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Vance McDonald’s strong finish to 2017 was no mirage, but there’s a “but.” First, Vance McDonald’s injures cannot be ignored. In five years in the NFL, he has never appeared in 16 games. He’s also in the final year of his contract and will be free agent come March 2019.

  • Jesse James doesn’t have the injury history, but he too will be a free agent next spring.

If Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are confident that they can commit the cap space to ensure that McDonald and James stay in Pittsburgh for the next several seasons, there’s no real need to target tight end with a premium pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

The Steelers can certainly upgrade from Xavier Grimble for the third tight end slot, but a late round pick would arguably be better spent on adding depth elsewhere.

The Steelers are an organization that likes to promote from within and the thinking here is that the team prefers and likely plans to keep McDonald and James in Black and Gold. Therefore the Steelers 2018 tight end draft needs should be considered Moderate-Low.

Like this? Please share via Facebook, Twitter etc...

How Ladarius Green Highlights Steelers Tight End History of Boom-Bust “Splash Personnel Moves”

As expected, the Steelers release of Ladarius Green has sparked a lot of finger pointing and recriminations in Steelers Nation. A headline accompanying Ed Bouchette’s article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described Ladarius Green’s acquisition as “’Worst signing ever.’”

  • That’s a pretty harsh claim, but one which will hold some truth if Bouchette’s reporting is accurate.

But if you cast aside some of the sound and fury surrounding what clearly is one of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s major personnel failures, you’ll find that it unfortunately fits the Steelers boom-bust history with splash personnel moves at tight end.

Heath Miller, Steelers tight end history

Heath Miller catches a pass in the Steelers 2012 loss to the Cowboys @ “Jerry’s World.” Photo Credit: USATSI via CBS Sports

Steelers Boom-Bust History of “Splash Personnel Moves” @ Tight End

Larry Brown and Randy Grossman held down the tight end duties as the Super Steelers were cutting their teeth. Two Super Bowls into their run, Noll realized that Larry Brown was an even better tackle and made the move. Noll would later say that Larry Brown’s play at right tackle merits Hall of Fame consideration.

Drafting tight end Bennie Cunningham in the 1st round of the 1976 NFL Draft was one of the things that allowed Noll to make that move. While Cunningham split the starting duties with Grossman, by any measure Bennie Cunningham was an extremely solid player, giving Terry Bradshaw a reliable alternative to Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

  • Count picking Bennie Cunningham in the first round as the Steelers first successful “Splash Personnel Move” at tight end.

As the Steelers championships of the 70’s faded into the mediocrity of the 1980’s, the tight end disappeared from Chuck Noll’s offense. As Noll once explained, “When people ask ‘Why don’t you throw to the tight end?’ ‘Why don’t you use the shotgun’ they’re really asking ‘Why don’t you win?’”

Well, People asked “Why don’t you throw to the tight end? a lot in the mid-1980’s, and in 1989 the Steelers decided to rectify that via Plan B Free Agency when they signed Mike Mularkey from the Minnesota Vikings.

  • Mularkey had an explosive season as the Steelers starting tight end, bringing down 22 passes and scoring a touchdown.

No, that’s not a typo. 22 receptions is a partly by 2017 standards, but remember:

  • The NFL was less pass happy then, and even by the era’s standards, the Steelers were “a running team”
  • Mularkey’s predecessor Preston Gothard combined passing total for 1987 and 1988 was 22 passes
  • Louis Lipps was the 1989 Steelers leading receiver with 50 catches.

So count the Plan B Free Agency signging of Mike Mularkey as second successful “Splash Personnel Move” move at tight end.

Since the 1989 signing of Mularkey worked out so well (OK, its really because Joe Walton was now the offensive coordinator), the Steelers decided to make another in 1990 by taking Eric Green in the 1st round of the 1990 NFL Draft.

Eric Green, Steelers tight end history

Eric Green in the Steelers 1994 season opening-loss to the Cowboys. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC

Eric Green of course held out for all of training camp, missed the first month of the season, then exploded as “Green’s second, third, fifth, sixth and seventh career catches were for TDs for touchdowns.

Although the 1990 Steelers would struggle and ultimately self-destruct under Joe Walton’s offense, one positive from that otherwise deeply disappointing season was that Pittsburgh looked to have found a transformational player. And to be honest, it would be grossly unfair to label Eric Green as a bust.

And Eric Green’s performance on the field never came close to approaching that level thanks to injuries, drug suspensions and flat out want-to. And then there was Green’s infamous “Super Bowl Rap Video” prior to the 1994 AFC Championship game.

  • Count Eric Green as one failed Steelers “Splash Personnel” move at tight end.
Mark Bruener, Jerome Bettis, Steelers tight end history

Mark Bruener prepares to block for Jerome Bettis @ Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers replaced Eric Green by taking Mark Bruener with their first round pick in the 1995 NFL Draft. Although Mark Bruener never caught more than 26 passes in a season, it says here that Burner was an excellent pick by the Steelers. Had Steel Curtain Rising existed in the 1990’s it would have argued (possibley incorrectly) that Mark Bruener catch rate and Percentage passes for touchdowns would have indicated he should have been targeted more often.

But even if Mark Bruener couldn’t have been a more of a receiving threat, he provided the Steelers with consistency at tight end for almost a decade.

  • Count Mark Bruener as a third successful Steelers “Splash Personnel” move at tight end.
Tommy Maddox

Tommy Maddox

The emergence of Tommy Maddox at quarterback in 2002 tempted Bill Cowher to open up the passing game and the Steelers went out and signed Jay Riemersma to give Tommy Gun another target. When the Steelers won their 2003 opener over the Ravens, Bill Cowher cited Jay Riemersma’s presence over the middle as one of the reasons for their success.

  • Unfortunately, the rest of Jay Riemersma’s Pittsburgh Steelers career would consist of 22 games and 15 catches.
  • Count Jay Riemersma’s as a second failed Steelers “Splash Personnel” move at tight end.

The Steelers responded to the Jay Riemersma failure by drafting Heath Miller in the 1st round of the 2005 NFL Draft. Heath Miller’s resume needs to review here. Over the course of 11 seasons, Heath Miller established himself as the best tight end in Steelers history, and Heath Miller’s legendary dependability made gave Ben Roethlisberger as close to an automatic catch as is practically possible.

  • Count Heath Miller as a fourth successful Steelers “Splash Personnel” move at tight end
Heath Miller, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers tight end history

Heath Miller and Ben Roethlisberger

When Heath Miller retired, the Steelers acted boldly, as Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin traveled to Florida to convince Ladarius Green to sign with them on the first day of free agency in 2016. We know how that move turned out. Even if Ladarius Green did give the Steelers “field flipping” capability that helped secure wins against the Colts, Giants and Bengals, his signing was a mistake.

  • Count Ladarius Green as a third failed Steelers “Splash Personnel Move” move at tight end

Although both men were successful, it’s hard to label the acquisitions of Larry Brown or Randy Grossman as a “Splash Personnel Move” as one arrived to the Steelers as a 5th round pick and the other an undrafted rookie free agent.

But since their arrival, the Steelers have invested 4 first round draft picks and 3 major free agent signings in trying to acquire a marquee tight end and their record is 4-3. Take this for what it is, but the odds indicate that whether move the Steelers make at tight end in the 2018 off season, it will be a success.

Like this? Please share via Facebook, Twitter etc...

All in the Family – Another Colbert, Butler Join Steelers Scouting Department

Joe Greene’s retirement from the Steelers scouting department has left ripples in its wake. Either that, or the shuffling in the Steelers scouting department was caused by the Ron Hughes semi-retirement, but most of Steelers Nation has never heard of Hughes, and working Joe Greene into the intro is a hell of a lot more sexier….

Indeed, Ron Hughes, who has headed the Steelers college scouting efforts, will step down as College Scouting Coordinator and move into semi-retirement as Senior Assistant for College Scouting.

The Steelers have promoted Phil Kreidler to the role of College Scouting Coordinator. Kreidler has worked in the Steelers scouting department since he joined as an intern during Chuck Noll’s final season in 1991.

Keeping it in the Family

Dan Rooney often said that he regarded Joe Greene as family, and with Greene gone the Steelers are keeping it in the family. Literally. Rooney’s son, Dan Rooney Jr., is already a member of the Steelers scouting department, and now Dan Colbert, son of Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert, was promoted from intern to pro/college scout.

Mike Butler, son of former Steelers cornerback Jack Butler will join as the Steelers BLESTO scout, an organization which Butler headed for decades, giving him a hand in the evaluations ever Steelers Hall of Famer from Terry Bradshaw to Dermontii Dawson, whom Bulter would share the stage with in their induction into Canton.

Dave Petett, who has severed as a “scout” for nine years, will now be a pro/college scout, while Mark Bruener will shift from BLESTO scout to college scout.

That’s probably more than you’d ever care to know about the org chart of the Steelers scouting department, but these individuals are faceless, nameless gnomes that tirelessly mine the college ranks, the pro football equalivialent of tilling the earth that has yielded a record Six Lombardi Trophies.

Thanks for visiting. Click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising. Or… Follow @SteelCurtainRis
Like this? Please share via Facebook, Twitter etc...

Tight End Now a Need…. Kyle Brady Visits the Steelers

While most of the news today focuses on the Steelers newly released 2008 schedule, that will be the subject of a future post.

The news in focus today concerns free agent tight end Kyle Brady’s visit to the Steelers today. This is interesting because Brady was the top tight end in the 1995 draft. The Steelers entered the 1995 draft in need of a tight end, to replace the recently departed Eric Green. The Steelers of course picked Mark Bruener, after Brady went on to Jets, and he end up playing for the Jags and Patriots as well.

  • The question is, why are the Steelers considering a free agent move at tight end, and why are they interested in Brady?

While the Steelers clearly didn’t have the personnel they needed to play a true three tight end set last year, it is still puzzling to think that they would expend precious cap space to fill that need now.

One must figure that Brady, at the end of his career, is looking only for the veteran minimum. While did only caught nine balls last year, two of them were for touchdowns.

He might be an interesting pick up…. Or is visit might signal that the Steelers might go back on their word and draft a tight end after all.

This may turn out to be nothing, but it could be an interesting twist.

Like this? Please share via Facebook, Twitter etc...

Watch Tower: Errors in the Steelers Digest?

Steelers Digest is an excellent publication. It provided Steelers Nation a vital lifeline in the pre-internet days, and today it continues to serve as the source of some of the best Steelers analysis available. It also serves as a pleasant counter-weight to some of the knee-jerkism that tends to inflict the Pittsburgh media from time to time.

  • I have been a proud subscriber since 1990, only succumbing to the on-line version in 2007 when Correo Central simply refused to stop losing my issues.

Suffice to say it caught my attention when I found not one, but two glaring factual errors in its pre-draft edition. On page 15, the “Fast Fact” under running back states that the Steelers have drafted more Tight Ends in the first round than running backs, listing Eric Green in 1990 and Heath Miller in 2005. True. It also leaves our Mark Bruener, our first round pick in 1995.

  • They add to the mistake on page 16, stating that Matt Spaeth was highest pick the team spent on a tight end since their number two pick in 1984. Again, this leaves out Mark Bruener and Eric Green.

The errors continue on page 17. Again, in the fast fact section, it states that the Steelers have only drafted three offensive tackles (Jarmain Stephens, 1996; Leon Searcy, 1992; Mike Taylor, 1969) in the first round during the last 40 years. Opps! This leaves out 1989’s second first round pick Tom Ricketts. (Ok, we all might want to forget that one, and he did play a few games at guard during his rookie year. Still, he was drafted and played as a tackle.)

Steelers Digest is normally a rock-solid publication, so I am quite surprised by these mistakes, especially since first rounders have such a high-profile. I plan to send a letter to the editor, and we’ll see if it gets printed.

Like this? Please share via Facebook, Twitter etc...