Steelers Can’t Get a Break: Jaylen Samuels Knee Surgery Sidelines RB #2 for a Month

In his weekly press conference Mike Tomlin dropped a bit of a bomb when he announced that running back Jaylen Samuels has his knee scoped and will be out for close to a month. Yes Steelers Nation, we have seen this movie before, only in 2019 it is hitting theaters earlier.

To be fair to Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin, the Steelers did at least attempt to upgrade their number 3 running back slot when they drafted  Benny Snell Jr. in the 2019 NFL Draft. Benny Snell only has 6 rushing attempts to his name, and while his 5 yard average might look impressive, 23 of those came on one run in the Steelers loss to Seattle.

  • Nonetheless, Benny Snell is now Steelers RB number 2 behind James Conner.

The Steelers also have Trey Edmunds, brother of Terrell Edmunds, on their practice squad and will likely activate him before Sunday Night’s game against the Chargers. The Steelers brain trust of course built the roster with Ben Roethlisberger in mind. But now they don’t even have the luxury of Mason Rudolph starting, as Devlin Hodges will get the nod this week.

Sadly, a Steelers Tomlin-era tradition of struggling to keep RB 1 and RB 2 healthy continues.

Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Steelers Cut Xavier Grimble

The Steelers also made another move prior to Sunday’s loss against the Ravens, when they waived tight end Xavier Grimble with an injury settlement. The move is slightly puzzling. The Steelers rarely wave players on injured reserve, as the last time they did so was when they cut Bruce Gradkowski in the fall of 2016.

Xavier Grimble had entered 2019 as the Steelers number 2 tight end, but that role appeared to be too big for him. Certainly Grimble, unlike Jesse James, wasn’t able to hold his own in Vance McDonald’s absence.

  • On paper the presence of Nick Vannett would appear to make Grimble expendable.

And restricted free agent tenders are not guaranteed, so the move makes salary cap sense for the Steelers. Still, if either McDonald or Vanett were to go down for an extended period, Grimble would have been available for the 2nd half of the season.

No one would have looked to Grimble as a savior in such circumstances, but at least he’d have brought more experience than Zach Gentry. With that said, it is entirely possible that Xavier Grimble asked for his release, as he’ll be free to latch on to another team.

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Another Wolverine to Pittsburgh! Steelers Draft Zach Gentry, Tight End, Michigan in 5th Round of 2019 NFL Draft

It must have been déjà vu all over again in the Steelers draft room during the 5th round. Except this time it wasn’t a surprise. Four years ago when it came time for the Steelers to pick, they drafted Jesse James.

  • The Steelers followed form in the 5th round of the 2019 NFL Draft by picking Michigan’s Zack Gentry.

The move counted as a bit of a surprise, as Heath Miller was still going reasonably strong, and the team had just resigned Matt Spaeth. The move turned out to be a wise one, as Heath Miller retired in after the 2016 season, and injuries to Ladarius Green and Vance McDonald made Jesse James the defacto starter at tight end in 2016 and 2017.

  • The Steelers released 2018 practice squader Bucky Hodges just days before the draft, prompting many to think Pittsburgh would address the position sooner.

Instead, the Steelers drafted inside linebacker Devin Bush, wide receiver Dointae Johnson, cornerback Justin Layne, and running back Benny Snell before turning to Zack Gentry in the 5th round.

Zach Gentry, Steelers draft Zach Gentry 5th round 2019

Steelers draft Zach Gentry in 5th round of 2019 NFL Draft. Photo Credit: Mike Mulholland via MLive.com

Draft analyst Lance Zierlein (son of former Steelers offensive line coach Larry Zierlein) described Zack Gentry this way:

With his size and background at Michigan, teams might be tempted to play him as a combination tight end with run-blocking duties, but he’s much better-suited in space than in the trenches. Gentry runs pretty well and moves fluidly as a route-runner, but his hands and focus can be maddening. He showed flashes of what he could do with a more capable quarterback last year, but his disappointing workouts and testing might have pushed back and out of the draft.

Is is the case with Dontae Johnson and perhaps Benny Snell, the Steelers appear to value Zack Gentry a little more highly than do the pundits.

Zack Gentry Highlight Tape

Zack Gentry actually played quarterback during his freshman year for the Wolverines, sat out 2016 presumably due to injury, and was back as a tight end in 2017 and 2018. During that time he caught 49 passes for four touchdowns.

Here is a look at some of his highlights:

IF nothing else Zach Gentry appears to have good hands. Welcome to Steelers Nation Zach Gentry.

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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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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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Keeping Up with the Joneses: Keion Adams, Brain Allen & Nat Berhe Among Surprising Steeler Cuts

Landry Jones isn’t alone. The Steelers cutting Landry Jones wasn’t the only surprise cut to come out of Pittsburgh.

In addition to saying good bye to a man that many thought was untouchable as their backup quarterback, the Steelers cut safety Nat Berhe whom they’d signed as a free agent, linebacker Keion Adams whom they’d picked in the 7th round of the 2017 NFL Draft and cornerback Brian Allen a 5th round pick from the 2017 NFL Draft who held a roster spot throughout 2017.

Brian Allen, Steelers 2018 cuts

Brian Allen, Steelers 5th rounder from 2017 was a surprise cut. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

Both Keion Adams and Brian Allen were seen as two players with significant “upside.” However, Adams was outplayed by undrafted rookie free agent Olasunkanmi Adeniyi. Based on how one interprets one of his tweets, Nat Berhe could be returning to the Steelers, but such a move would require them to put someone in injured reserve.

  • The Steelers also parted ways with Fitzgerald Toussaint, who was having a strong camp and played a key role on special teams.

The Steelers also placed Eli Rogers on the PUP list, and designated wide receivers Damoun Patterson and Marcus Tucker, offensive lineman Joseph Cheek, safety Malik Golden and linebacker Keith Kelsey as “injured waived” freeing them to sign with another NFL team but allowing the Steelers to retain their rights should they go unclaimed.

  • Jordan Berry, whose preseason performance had been mixed – put generously – avoided a visit from The Turk as the Steelers cut punter Matt Wile.

Joshua Frazier, whom the Steelers picked in the 7th round of the 2018 NFL Draft, was the only member of the Pittsburgh’s draft class to get cut, and Frazier will likely return on the practice squad.

The rest of the Steelers cuts included:

Running Backs
Jarvion Franklin
James Summers

Wide Receivers
Trey Griffey
Quadree Henderson
Tevin Jones

Tight Ends
Bucky Hodges
Pharoah McKever
Christian Scotland-Williamson

Offensive Linemen
Larson Graham
Patrick Morris
Oni Omoile
R.J. Prince
Jake Rodgers
Chris Schleuger

Cornerbacks
Dashaun Phillips
Malik Reaves
Jamar Summers

Linebackers
Matt Galambos
Farrington Huguenin

Defensive Linemen
Parker Cothren
Greg Gilmore
Lavon Hooks
Casey Sayles
Kendal Vickers

The Steelers will need to make at least one additional personnel move as Le’Veon Bell is not officially part of their 53 man roster.

Tight End Health Not a Concern – Yet

Thanks to a little inductive reasoning, we can also reasonably conclude that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert are not concerned about the health of Vance McDonald and Xavier Grimble or of Jesse James for that matter. McDonald has been injured all summer, and Xavier Grimble has had wrist/thumb surgery calling into question just how stable tight end would be for the Steelers in 2018.

The fact that the Steelers cut Bucky Hodges and Pharoah McKever would seem to indicate that they’re not concerned about the health of their tight ends.

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Achilles Heel? Jesse James Healthy but Steelers Could be in Tight Spot @ Tight End

Ah, gotta watch those June Achilles tears. On the Jesse James return to practice following his injury in Pittsburgh’s preseason win over Tennessee, but tight end could be a tight spot for the Steelers this season, and if it is it will have all started with a June Achilles injury.

Jesse James, Steelers 2018 tight ends

Jesse James after catching a high Ben Roethlisberger pass vs. Titans. Photo credit: Yahoo! Sports

Pittsburgh’s problems at the position of began during spring practice, when reserve tight end Jake McGee torn his Achilles tendon during OTAs. The Steelers had carried McGee on their practice squad during 2018 and coaches expected McGee to push Xavier Grimble for a roster spot.

The Steelers situation at tight end grew more complicated arrived at St. Vincents when Vance McDonald injured his foot after after only one day of practice. Vance McDonald has not practiced since that fateful day in July, although Mike Tomlin has publicly listed McDonald as “Day-to-day.”

The Steelers of course acquired McDonald last season in a trade, only to see him sit on the sidelines injured, although he rebounded for strong game in the playoff loss to the Jaguars.

That left Xavier Grimble and Jesse James, but Grimble injured his wrist/thumb on a blocking sled on August 18th and had to have surgery. Grimble has been characterized as “Week-to-week.” If McDonald’s absence is any guide, perhaps month-to-month would be for fitting for Grimble.

Let’s hope that not the case, but as good Reimagined Battlestar Galactica fans know, “All this has happened before and [hopefully] will [not] again.”

June Misfortunes Can Set the Tone for an Entire Season

The advent of the digital age has magnified everything. Trivial, bit-sized bites of Steelers news that once would have merited 2-3 inches of newspaper column wedged in somewhere deep in the back pages of the Pittsburgh Press or Post-Gazette now serve as feature-length click generating stories (sometimes for good reason, sometimes not.)

  • In that spirit, news from OTAs and minicamp often gets taken too seriously.
  • But sometimes what events from June can end up dictating the entire narrative of the season.

Take the case of Willie Colon. In 2010 Willie Colon, the Steelers starting right tackle, tore his Achilles tendon in late June. This came after Steelers 5th round draft pick Chris Scott had already broken his leg. Those two injuries initiated a torrent of offensive line injuries that lasted the entire year.

During the Steelers 2010 win over Tampa Bay, the Steelers were force to substitute so many offensive lineman that Mike Tomlin remarked jokingly (or perhaps not so jokingly) that coaches didn’t even know who was in and who was out of the game.

The Steelers lost Max Starks in week 7 against Cincinnati, and in the next week against New England, Ben Roethlisberger suffered 5 sacks as the Patriots collapsed the Steelers offensive line at will. Roethlisberger’s sack rate nearly doubled with Jonathan Scott starting at left tackle.

  • Offensive line injuries continued literally through to the taild end of the season.

After the Steelers playoff win against the Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger lauded Flozell Adams for wanting to come off of a gurney to return to the game, and Pittsburgh of course was forced to start Doug Legursky at center in Super Bowl XLV due to injuries to Maurkice Pouncey.

Will the same thing happen to the 2018 Steelers at tight end? Hopefully not, but with less than two weeks to go before the regular season, tight end appears to be the Steelers Achilles heel.

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Steelers Sign Ryan Malleck and Bryce Harris to Replace Jake McGree and Jerald Hawkins

Steelers OTAs have been costly as both reserve offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins and backup tight end Jake McGee were lost to season ending injuries. Kevin Colbert moved swiftly to fill the void by signing offensive tackle Bryce Harris and tight end Ryan Malleck.

  • It is of minor note that the Steelers turned to NFL veterans to replace Jerald Hawkins and Jake McGree’s places.

While the Steelers would have been expected to sign replacements, Kevin Colbert could have just as easily filled both spots with undrafted rookie free agents. However, Bryce Harris has been bouncing around the NFC South since 2012, when he made the New Orleans roster as an undrafted rookie free agent.

  • Per Pro Football Reference, Bryce Harris has appeared in 37 games with both the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints, and is even listed as having started 4 games.

Ryan Malleck returns to Pittsburgh after spending 3 months on the Steelers 2017 off season roster from February to May. After getting cut by the Steelers, Malleck spent time with the Ravens, and earned a spot on the Houston Texas active roster, where he saw action in two games, including catching one pass against the Steelers in Pittsburgh’s Christmas night win over the Texans.

Ryan Malleck, steelers sign ryan malleck, steelers vs texans

Ryan Malleck catches his lone NFL pass vs. Steelers. Photo Credit: Michael Wyke, AP via PennLive

The Steelers penciled in Jerald Hawkins as their 3rd/swing offensive tackle and heir apparent to Chris Hubbard. Third round draft pick Chukwuma Okorafor will get first shot at that job, but the Steelers have given Mike Munchak a bit of an insurance policy should Chukwuma Okorafor falter.

Jake McGee spent 2017 on the Steelers practice squad, where he drew rave reviews from Steelers 24/7 reporter Jim Wexell. The Steelers had expected Jake McGee to give Xavier Grimble a run at the third tight end position behind Vance McDonald and Jesse James.

The Steelers have another week of OTA’s remaining, followed by mandatory mini-camp. After that, the real off season begins until convening for training camp in July at St. Vincents in Latrobe.

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Former Steelers Tight End Bennie Cunningham Dies At 63

Former Steelers tight end Bennie Cunningham passed away from cancer on Monday.

Cunningham was Pittsburgh’s first round choice out of Clemson in the 1976 NFL Draft, and during a career that spanned 10 seasons, he caught 202 passes for 2,879 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Cunningham was a member of the Steelers’ Super Bowl XIII and XIV teams, and if you’ve ever seen the NFL Films highlight show of that second game–a 31-19 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Pasadena, California–he is the guy walking off the field with his index finger raised high in the air (the universal symbol for “We’re No. 1!”).

Cunningham perhaps never had the career befitting a first round choice, but then again, in head coach Chuck Noll‘s conservative offense, averaging 20 receptions a season as a tight end was no small feat.

However, after catching just 10 passes combined during his final two seasons (a time when tight ends were rarely featured in Pittsburgh’s offense), Cunningham may have seen the handwriting on the wall and finally decided to call it a career following the ’85 campaign.

In a “Where Are They Now?” article published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2002, it stated Cunningham spent a decade as a counselor/consultant at West-Oak High School in Westminster, South Carolina, and that he was about to coach the school’s golf team that year.

Speaking of golf, Cunningham was one of the few close friends of enigmatic quarterback Terry Bradshaw during his time with the Steelers, and he said the Blond Bomber would often try to get the big tight end to play a  few rounds after a hot day of practice at training camp in Latrobe, Pa.:

“We’d work out in the morning, and Terry and a couple of guys would take off to play golf before we had to go out again later that afternoon,” Cunningham said. “I couldn’t understand how those guys could do that. I don’t know where they got the energy.”

Cunningham may never be known as one of the Steelers all-time greats (or even the greatest tight end in team history), but he was named to the Steelers 75th Anniversary Team in 2007.

Bennie Cunningham was 63 years old.

 

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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.

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