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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Steelers Trade for Vance McDonald. Does “Varsity” Tight End Mean Trouble for Xavier Grimble?

With the clock ticking on Ben Roethlisberger‘s career and therefore the franchise’s Super Bowl window, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert looked at the team’s tight end depth chart, found it wanting and took action.

  • The Steelers traded a 4th round pick form the 2018 NFL Draft to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for tight end Vance McDonald and a 5th round pick in 2018.
Vance McDonald, Vance McDonald Trade, Steelers trade for Vance McDonald

New Steelers tight end Vance McDonald advances the ball for the 49ers against the Broncos. Photo Credit: AP via Yahoo Sports

When asked what led the Steelers to make such an uncharacteristic move so late in the season, Mike Tomlin refused sugar coat his assessment of his Tight Ends:

The guys hadn’t been consistently varsity enough for our comfort. It’s as black and white as that. They’ve had some moments positively and had some moments negatively, and so we were in the market for a guy that was NFL-capable. McDonald is that.

Jesse James ears are burning brightly. When the Steelers drafted James in the 5th round of the 2015 NFL Draft the Pennsylvania native wasn’t regarded as Heath Miller’s heir apparent, a move made clear by the Steelers rapid signing of Ladarius Green to start free agency in 2016.

Nonetheless, James started for most of the 2016 season while Ladarius Green remained injured, and generally played above expectations, including making key catches in the game winning drive of the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. When the Steelers cut Green in June, James WAS the heir apparent, but his performance in training camp and preseason hasn’t been consistent.

  • But if Jesse James ears are burning Xavier Grimble’s  hands are likely the ones to tremble thanks to this move.

Grimble spent parts of 2014 on the Patriots and 49er’s practice squads, and then served a full internship in 2015 on the Steelers practice squad. While Grimble made the final 53 man roster, his performance was inconsistent down the stretch, despite having ample opportunity to prove himself in Green’s absence. Word is that Grimble has been inconsistent for much of the summer, and McDonald’s arrival could signal a visit form the Turk for Grimble.

Mike Tomlin has not commented how Vance McDonald’s arrival impacts the rest of the tight end depth chart, nor would he commit to using McDonald in any specific way, explaining that the Steelers first signed Darrius Heyward-Bey as a wide receiver, not realizing his ability on special teams.

The San Francisco 49ers drafted Vance McDonald 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft, taking him six slots after Le’Veon Bell. During his first four season in the NFL, Vance McDonald has started 30 games and appeared in 48, while catching 64 passes for 391 yards for seven touchdowns.

In addition to Grimble, James and McDonald, the Steelers also have veteran David Johnson along with Jake McGee. The Steelers cut hopeful Phazahn Odom shortly after acquiring McDonald.

Welcome to Steelers Nation, Vance McDonald.

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4 Steelers 2017 OTAs Story Lines to Avoid (But That You Probably Can’t Resist)

Today marks the mid-point of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 OTA’s or “Oragniazed Team Activities” for those of you who insist on precision. That means that there’s only four more left after today. But fear not, there’s also minicamp.

  • Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin will be the first person to caution against drawing conclusions from “football in shorts.”

And he’s right. Nonetheless, there are times when OTA’s and/or Minicamp have provided insight into the direction of the Steelers. But reading last Tuesday morning’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s headline “7 Steelers Storylines as OTA’s Begin” inspired me to write the “4 Steelers 2017 OTA Storylines to Avoid” article….

…And then I started reading coverage from the first week of Steelers OTA’s, took my Black and Gold blood pressure, and added the “Probably Can’t Resist” part. You’ll see why.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 2017 OTAs

Will 2017 mark Ben Roethlisberger’s final Steelers OTAs? Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Pittsburgh Tribune Review

1. The Roethlisberger Retirement Story

This is probably the most unavoidable of the ones to avoid. Ben Roethlisberger hadn’t talked to the press since dropping the R-word following the Steelers AFC Championship loss. So you knew this was coming. And let’s be honest, Jerry Micco & company would woefully neglectful NOT publishing a story on it.

  • As it turns out, Ben Roethlisberger proclaimed and demonstrated his 110% commitment to 2017 and refused to go further.

So in other words, Ben Rothlisberger has confirmed that his playing days are now on a year-to-year basis. We knew that already. So really, there’s no story there….

…And with that said, if seeing Ben Roethlisberger proclaim…

I am here on Day One. You saw me out there taking every rep I am supposed to take, and then some. I actually took some of the rookies’ today. I am 110 percent committed, like I said I was I love this city. I love these guys. I love being out here. Football is a passion of mine. It’s what I do and it’s what I love to do.

…Doesn’t make you wish opening days was this Sunday, then you’re not a real Steelers fan.

2. The Martavis Bryant Rejuvenation

If Ben Roethlisberger gauging the correct time to pull the plug on his career, Martavis Bryant is trying to keep his on life support.

Martavis Bryant returned to the South Side for the first time since his latest substance abuse suspension and proclaimed himself to be a new man. He’s in the best shape of his life, and apparently running a 40 that’s faster than when he was in college. Then Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell was kind enough to post this video:

Again, admit it: If the sight of Martavis Bryant lining up along Antonio Brown doesn’t make you wonder “What If” when you remember the AFC Championship game, then it’s time to turn in your season tickets.

  • But while that feel good story is legit, some buzz kill certainly remains in order.

It was just one year ago today that Le’Veon Bell was denying Mark Madden’s report that he’d failed multiple drug tests. With that direct denial in hand, the Steelers press corps moved on to other items, and the story died, until training camp arrived and Steelers Nation learned that Le’Veon Bell WAS in fact facing a suspension.

Martavis Bryant is saying all the right things and by all accounts doing the right things, but we’ve seen this movie before.

3. Position Battles at Tight End and Cornerback

This one comes with no need for qualification. Had Ladarius Green not been cut, then it’s possible that OTA’s would have given Steelers Nation the first sight that Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Scott Orndoff from Pitt was going to give David Johnson or Xavier Grimble a run for his money (and his roster spot.)

  • Possible, mind you, but not likely.

But as it stands, Jesse James is the Steelers number 1 tight end, with David Johnson and Xavier Grimble fighting for the number 2 spot. As the Steelers don’t typically keep four tight ends, Scott Orndoff might still need to beat one of those two men to get a spot. But absent Ladarius Green, Orndoff getting reps won’t tell us much.

  • Ditto the defensive backfield.

About the only thing we might learn is whether Jordan Dangerfield will continue to function in that hybrid linebacker/safety slot that he played in at times at the end of 2016. But don’t expect any realistic information to come out of OTA’s as to whether Coty Sensabaugh, Senquez Golson or 3rd round draft pick Cam Sutton will push William Gay to Safety or to the bench.

With that said, news that Senquez Golson is running well will be most welcome.

4. News That So-and-So Rookie Is As Good as Advertised…

If a team’s first round draft pick is kind of like a new car, then OTA’s represent the first time you get to take it around the block. Let’s admit it fun. The car retains all of its sex appeal and new car sent never smelled better.
No one ever discovered they’d bought a lemon on their first spin around the bock. Neither did they concluded that they’d made the best purchase of their life.

No Pittsburgh Steeler ever earned rookie of the year honors during OTA’s let alone the Pro Bowl. But they have left false impressions. Ryan Shazier immediately leap frogged Vince Williams, Sean Spence and Terence Garvin and worked alongside the starters during 2014 OTA’s.

  • Mike Tomlin loathes anointing rookies, so this represented a bold move.

And while this site was an remains a Ryan Shazier fan, injuries ruined much of his rookie year, and he had to fight his way back onto the starting roster. Jonathan Dwyer provides an even better example. If memory serves, Jonathan Dwyer was the toast of 2010’s OTA’s. Unfortunately, the PG Plus stories that Ray Fitapaldo wrote about him aren’t accessible via Google search.

  • We did unearth an article talking about how Jonathan Dwyer’s cousin James Farrior was helping him understand the work ethic necessary to transition to the NFL.

That make this all the more ironic, because while Dwyer did look good in OTA’s, he showed up at St. Vincents overweight and out of shape, and only got a roster spot thanks to a late preseason surge plus an injury to Frank “The Tank” Summers.

So with that in mind I could do nothing except roll my eyes when I saw Behind the Steel Curtain editor Jeff Hartman’s headline, “Steelers Top Draft Pick TJ Watt Flashes Ridiculous Ball Skills at OTAs.” I mean, come one, how “ridiculous” can the ball skills of any rookie, even a future Hall of Famer like Troy Polamalu, show at OTAs. Right?

Then I saw the video:

In case you’re just joining use, the Steelers drafted T.J. Watt in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft to replace James Harrison, not Heath Miller or Ladarius Green. And this wasn’t a one-play wonder:

OK. Let’s remember that this is coming during OTA’s in a situation where Watt knows not only knows the ball is being thrown, its being thrown to him without anyone contesting the catch.

But how can you not be impressed by back-to-back one-handed interceptions. For the record, Jim Wexell posted a longer video of this same session that also showed Bud Dupree making some nice catches himself.

It might be “Only OTA’s” but I guess it’s still OK to enjoy what you see.

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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.

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All Eyes on Jesse James as Steelers Cut Ladarius Green

Sometimes, things just don’t work out. Such is the case with Ladarius Green and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers 2016 off season began with the retirement of Heath Miller. Faced with the task of replacing Heath Miller’s legendary dependability in the passing game, the Steelers acted swiftly by signing Ladarius Green on the first day of free agency.

Even after Martavis Bryant’s suspension, Ladarius Green promised to give the Steelers a viable weapon to compensate. Then Green sat out OTA’s due to his ankle. Then he began training camp on the PUP. Then conflicting report arose detailing Ladarius Green’s ongoing concussion symptoms.

Ladarius Green, Steelers cut Ladarius Green, Vontaze Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals

Vontaze Burfict tackles Ladarius Green in what would be his final game with the Steelers. Photo Credit: Kohl, USA Today via Steel City Insider

As fate would have it, Ladarius Green didn’t see the field until mid-season, but he made almost an immediate impact. Then he suffered another concussion against Cincinnati and his season was over. And now we know, so was his career with the Steelers.

Ladarius Green’s Career with the Steelers = “Good While It Lasted”

Ladarius Green’s Pittsburgh Steelers career consisted of 6 games, 2 starts, 18 catches for 304 yards and one touchdown. With Bryant out and Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey ailing, the Steelers offense struggled to find a receiver capable of taking heat off of Antonio Brown.

  • By the time the Steelers late season run was in full swing, it looked like Ladarius Green’s emergence might alter that equation.

18 catches for 304 yards might not sound like much, but in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts, their win over the Giants and their road victory over the Bengals, Ladarius Green proved to be a difference making, flipping the field at critical moments in all three games.

Just when it seemed like the Steelers might have found the vertical threat that neither Eli Rogers, nor Sammie Coates, nor Cobi Hamilton could provide, Ladarius Green suffered another concussion as he went over the middle to make another clutch catch on the road against the Bengals.

Fans speculated that the Steelers might part ways with their tight end. This site suggested that the Steelers day one signing of Davidy Johnson suggested the Steelers were questioning Green’s return.

  • Yet, Kevin Colbert affirmed that Ladarius Green was in the Steelers plans for 2017.

The Steelers deed of not to pick a tight end during the 2017 NFL Draft seemed to confirm their words. Clearly the calculus has changed.

Jesse James’ Baptism by Fire Begins in Earnest

With Ladarius Green gone, all eyes turn towards Jesse James who now becomes the incumbent starter at tight end.

Jesse James, Steelers Jesse James, Steelers vs. Bengals, Jesse James touchdown

Shawn Williams can’t stop Jesse James from catching a touchdown in the Steelers 2016 win over Cincinnati @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via PennLive

Jesse James was the Steelers 5th round draft pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and it says here that since picking him, Jesse James has done everything the Steelers have asked him  today. While 2016 certainly didn’t represent a breakout season for James, he did come up with clutch catches on any number of occasions, including the Steelers Christmas Comeback over the Ravens.

Nonetheless, when reviewing the Steelers depth chart at tight end most fans and analysts have tended to couch their critiques of the Steelers Depth Chart at tight end with comments like, “Jesse James had a good second season. But….”

  • Very soon, Steelers Nation will see if Jesse James can erase those “buts.”

Behind James, the Steelers have David Johnson who’ll work in as a number 2 tight end, and Xavier Grimble playing as the number 3. Undrafted rookie free agent Scott Orndoff is also expected to push for a roster spot.

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Pitt Panthers Scott Orndoff Leads Steelers 2017 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class

The value delivered by the Steelers 2017 Draft Class won’t be known until we see whether Ben Roethlisberger stands on the dais hosting a Lombardi before he begins his “Life’s Work,” but character, or human interest stories have driven much of the narrative 2017 NFL Draft for Pittsburgh.

While rocket scientist Joshua Dobbs offers a compelling story this year, he can’t quite compare to Pitt’s James Conners battle with cancer. So perhaps it’s fitting that another Pitt Panther leads the Steelers 2017 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class.

Scott Orndoff, Scott Mr. Wonderful Orndoff, Scott Orndorff, Steelers 2017 undrafted rookie free agent class

Pitt Panther tight end Scott Orndoff leads the Steelers 2017 undrafted rookie free agent class. Photo Credit: LeClaire, USA Today via Steel City Insider

Almost as soon as they stopped announcing names form the podium in Philadelphia, the Steelers 2017 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class was announced.

Scott Orndoff, tight end, Pittsburgh 6’4” 253lbs
Terrish Webb, Safety, Pittsburgh, 5’10” 190 lbs
Nelson Adams, Defensive Tackle from Mississippi State, 6’3”287lbs
Christian Brown, Defensive Tackle, West Virginia, 6’3” 295 lbs
Ethan Cooper, Guard Indiana-Pennsylvania, 6’2” 322 lbs
Francis Kallon, Defensive End, Georgia Tech, 6’5” 295
Keith Kelsey, Linebacker, Louisville, 6’0” 233
Nick Schuessler, Quarterback, Clemson 6’3” 196 lbs
Rushel Shell, Running Back, West Virginia, 5’9” 227 lbs

Going into the 2017 NFL Draft a vocal contingent of Steelers Nation was adamant that the Steelers draft a tight end, citing concerns about Jesse James development and Ladarius Green’s concussion history. It has been rumored that the Browns jumped ahead of the Steelers to draft tight end David Njoku, although no reporting has substantiated that claim.

However, the way the draft evolved, the Steelers couldn’t pick a tight end without reaching, but Jim Wexell sees Scott “Mr. Wonderful” Orndoff, the Steelers undrafted rookie free agent tight end from Pitt, as no less than Pittsburgh’s Ace in the Hole (nod and wink to compatriots who came of age in the 80’s and understand the “Mr. Wonderful” reference.)

  • Per Wexell’s reporting, several scouts rated Orndoff as a legitimate 6th round prospect.

Wexell backs his assertion up with analysis from Kyle Crabbs of NDT Scouting:

He has good spatial awareness and the ability to beat zone coverage consistently. A reliable inline blocker, Orndoff projects favorably as a team’s TE2 where he can influence the game as a red-zone target and be relied upon in game situations to be an effective pass or run blocker.

A potential 6th round pick or not, Scott Orndoff doesn’t have an updated highlights clip on YouTube, although this one from 2015 is pretty impressive:

Assuming Green’s health holds up until opening day and James development continues as is, both are locks to make the final roster. While most fans generally ignored the Steelers decision to resign David Johnson early in free agency, the Craig Wolfley has suggested that bringing David Johnson back could be “Steelers Biggest Little Signing” of the off season because of his blocking ability and ability to supplement Roosevelt Nix at fullback as Le’Veon Bell’s lead blocker in two back formations.

If that is correct, then Xavier Grimble would be the man whom Scott Orndoff must beat to secure a roster spot.

As Always, Seeking the Next FWP, Silverback or Foster

In a lot of cities, the annual signing of the undrafted rookie free agent class is a non-event, slightly above the future-contracts signings that come immediately after a season ends. But Kevin Colbert has an uncanny knack of uncovering championship caliber talent in the NFL’s undrafted rookie free agent pool.

Former Super Bowl starters Willie Parker, Ramon Foster, Darnell Stapleton and of course James Harrison earned roster spots with the Steelers as undrafted rookie free agents.

Whether it’s thanks to Scott Orndoff or someone else, chances are you’ll see at least one of the above names again.

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David Johnson Signs 2 Year Contract. Are Steelers Signaling Concern about Ladarius Green?

The Pittsburgh Steelers began the 2017 free agency signing period exactly has they began free agency in 2016 – by signing a veteran tight end with ties to the San Diego Chargers. The first move out of Pittsburgh in free agency saw the Steelers resigning David Johnson to a two year contract.

The veteran tight end of course played in Pittsburgh during 2016, but he’d spent 2014 and 2015 playing for the Chargers.

  • Ironically, the Steelers latest opening day tight end free agent signing might signal some buyers remorse regarding their first.
David Johnson, Steelers David Johnson, Presetony Brown, Steelers vs Bills,

David Johnson with the 6th of his 7 2016 receptions as Prestony Brown looks on. Photo Credit: Bill Wippert, AP via Penn Live

Let’s be clear, when the Steelers signed Ladarius Green last year, their plan was to add a dynamic weapon to complement Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. And when healthy, Ladarius Green did just that for the Steelers in 2016. In contrast David Johnson isn’t going to create any miss-matches with opposing secondaries.

  • Potentially, the Steelers decision to resign David Johnson so quickly signals that concern over whether Ladarius Green will return in 2017.

To be certain, Kevin Colbert as well as others on the South Side have clearly indicated that they expect Ladarius Green to be back in 2017. The Steelers have also insisted that Ladarius Green’s slow start to 2016 and his stint on the PUP was caused by complications from his ankle injury and not be concerns about his concussion history.

But, as we reminded readers just yesterday, the Steelers actions speak far louder than their words.

Timing of David Johnson Contract is What Raises Eyebrows

David Johnson gives the Steelers tight end corps a veteran presence and he brings blocking ability to the game that Jesse James and Xavier Grimble cannot yet match. David Johnson is also a fairly reliable pass catcher, even if quarterbacks don’t look his way very often. Those are all reasons why it makes sense to bring him back.

  • But the question is why pull the trigger on a new contract with David Johnson now?

David Johnson will turn thirty just before opening day 2017. He’s never had more than 14 passes thrown his way in a single season and has only scored a single touchdown. While David Johnson hasn’t spent his career as a roster bubble baby, his lease on NFL life has certainly been negotiated on a season-to-season basis.

  • The 2017 NFL Draft is said to be a deep one for tight ends.

The Steelers could presumable wait to see if they could get a tight end of their choice and, if not, David Johnson would have certainly been available afterwards. The fact that the Steelers have offered David Johnson a contract in early March as opposed to late May suggests they don’t wish to take chances.

That in turn at least suggests the Steelers are concerned about Ladarius Green’s concussion issues.

Alternative Explanations Exist

It is important to be fair to Ladarius Green. This writer has no sources on the South Side, so we’re only speculating. While terms of David Johnson’s contract haven’t been made public yet, one would guess that he signed for at or near the veteran minimum.

  • However, the two-year length of the contract would seem to indicate that he’s more or less guaranteed a roster spot.

So if there are other explanations to for the Steelers decision to resign David Johnson so early in free agency, concern about Ladarius Green’s concussions remains the most plausible one.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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End of Tight End By Committee? Steelers Activate Ladarius Green, Cut L.J. Forte

When the Pittsburgh Steelers face off against the Dallas Cowboys at Heinz Field this afternoon, they’ll do so with a new face on the offensive huddle. The highly anticipated move saw the Steelers activate Ladarius Green while cutting L.J. Fort to create roster space.

Ladarius Green, steelers activate ladarius green, 2016 steelers tight ends,

Steelers activate Ladarius Green in time for Cowboys game. Photo Credit: AP, used in Pittsburgh Tribune Review

The Steelers of course signed Ladarius Green to replace Heath Miller when Heath Miller retired after the 2015 season. While it will be difficult for Ladarius Green to replace Heath Miller’s legendary dependability, Green does have strech the field speed.

In that respect, he could potentially provide relief for Antonio Brown who had been bracketed by double and triple coverages, as the Steelers have cycled through Eli Rogers, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates as number 2 receivers (Markus Wheaton has been injured, and it does not appear he will play this week.)

An End to the Steelers Tight End by Committee Approach?

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger described Green as a “brand-new Ferrari in the impound lot that I’m just looking through a fence at.” Ladarius Green of course has been on the PUP list, due to an ankle injury he had when the Steelers signed him in addition to lingering effect of a concussion he suffered at the end of 2015.

Ladarius Green has been practicing since the Steelers bye week, and with Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley and Green’s teammates have praised his performance in practice, some reports have been skeptical. In the his message board at Steel City Insider, Jim Wexell had openly expressed doubt as to whether Green would even be activated based on his performance in practice, and his more public comments on Twitter echo those sentiments:

Nonetheless, the Steelers decision to retain Johnson, Grimble and James amounts to a vote of confidence for their existing tight end trio, with both Jesse James and Xavier Grimble showing a lot of “upside” while David Johnson has provided stability, solid blocking and position flexibly.

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Ladarius Green Practices, Steelers Have 21 Days to Activate Him from PUP

Elvis is in the building! The Pittsburgh Steelers had a new participant at practice yesterday, none other than Ladarius Green according to Chris Adamanski of the Tribune Review. The Steelers of course responded to Heath Miller’s retirement by signing Green, hoping that Green’s vertical big play ability could make up for Heath Miller’s legendary dependability.

  • The move made sense, as it allowed the Steelers to focus on the secondary in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Ladarius Green, Ladarius Green practices

The wait is over! Ladarius Green practices with Steelers for first time. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Then things got wired, as Green sat out mini-camp, OTA’s and all of training camp. Green had had surgery following the 2015 season, but word leaked that he was also in the NFL’s concussion protocols. The Steelers never confirmed that later bit of news, but various reporters did, although there were conflicting reports.

  • Some reporters even speculated that the Steelers might try to recoup Ladarius Green’s signing bonus.

So the Steelers placed Ladarius Green on the PUP list and the wait began.

An End to Tight End by Committee?

In Ldarius Green’s absence, the Steelers turned to a “Tight end by committee” approach, relying on Jesse James, David Johnson and Xavier Grimble. Each of the three had their moments, but none of them provided the dynamic spark the Steelers hopped to get with Green.

According to Adamanski, Green had a good practice, catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones an Zach Mettenberger. Adamanski quoted Sean Davis as confirming that Green had a good day of practice, including making a touchdown catch.

For Whom the Turk Visits?

It is unknown whether or when the Steelers will activate Ladarius Green. The sight of Ladarius Green practicing is a positive one, but three seasons ago Sean Spence returned from the PUP only to reinjure himself.

  • Should the Steelers activate Ladarius Green, they will have to make a roster move to create space for him.

Jesse James figures to be safe, but if Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert intend on keeping only 3 tight ends then either David Johnson or Xavier Grimble could be in trouble. As a vested vetran, Johnson would be owed his full salary for the season, and he is the team’s best blocking tight end who can also serve as a fullback. Xavier Grimble has far more “upside” at this stage of his career, but the Steelers might not be able to sneak him back on the practice squad.

Cobi Hamilton, the rookie wide receiver would also be a candidate to go, but there’s no assurance the Steelers would be able to get him back onto their practice squad.

  • Of course, with the way the injury bug has hit the Steelers, circumstances could end up making the decision for him.

The Steelers now have 21 days to make a decision on activating Ladarius Green, or placing him on injured reserve for the season. They could activate him for either their game against the Ravens or the Cowboys but would need to pull the trigger after that.

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Steelers Tight End David Johnson – Can Johnson Fill the Void Until Ladarius Green Recovers?

With Ladarius Green lingering injury creating chaos, could forgotten man, David Johnson fill the 2016 Steelers void at tight end, at least in the short term? Clearly, Steelers coaches want Jesse James to fill that void.

Coaches don’t always get what they want but Steelers tight end David Johnson just might provide enough of what Pittsburgh’s offense needs until Ladarius Green recovers….

Steelers tight end David Johnson, pittsburgh steelers, david johnson, steelers lions preseason

Steelers tight end David Johnson catches a pass in preseason. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Whether it is because of his ankle, as Mike Tomlin insists, or because of headaches (sinus or concussion related), the Pittsburgh Steelers are in no hurry to take Ladarius Green off of the PUP list. Green insists his issues are with his ankle and not his head, and that he’s improving. But the Steelers 2016 opener vs. the Washington Redskins is two weeks away, and Green has yet to take a snap with the Steelers offense in practice, let alone a game.

  • And that leaves the Steelers in a quandary at tight end.

Heath Miller has retired. Matt Spaeth failed his physical and the Steelers and has been cut. That shifted most of the focus on Jesse James, the Steelers 5th round pick from the 2015 NFL Draft. So be it. Jesse James looked good as a rookie, catching his second and third passes for scores. But Landry Jones ill-fated 4th interception came as the result of getting drilled before throwing the ball, and James blocking on that play.

If his preseason stats are any indication, the Steelers are not looking to use Jesse James as a weapon on the passing game. And that means that whoever starts for the Steelers at tight end needs to block well. And James is having issues there.

That leaves David Johnson.

David Johnson from Forgotten Man to Key Role Player (Again)

Let’s get this out in the open. I’m a David Johnson fan. David Johnson wasn’t the 2009 NFL Draft’s “Mr. Irrelevant” but he was pretty close, as the Steelers drafted Johnson at 241 in the 7th round, or 16 picks before the final player was taken.

  • What exactly are the odds of a 7th round draft pick of a defending Super Bowl champion making the final roster?

Who knows, but they cannot be good, especially when that Super Bowl team has Heath Miller playing in his prime and Matt Spaeth growing into his third year. But Johnson bucked the system and made the Steelers. Johnson first came to my attention in the Steelers 2010 road upset of the Baltimore Ravens. That might seem odd, given Troy Polamalu’s strip sack of Joe Flacco, LaMarr Woodley’s recovery, Ben Roethlisberger’s brawl with Terrell Suggs, and Isaac Redman’s will-power touchdown.

Yet, in naming David Johnson as the game’s unsung hero the Steelers-Ravens Report Card observed this:

…For a guy that never caught anything, to come in to the number two tight end position and bring down three catches including a 25 yarder that was the Steelers first long gain of the night. The Steelers continue to win in the face of so many injuries because David Johnson and players like him are stepping it up.

And that’s largely the kind of player David Johnson has been. There’s nothing sexy about him. He’s a guy who has made a career of fighting for an winning one of those final 10 roster spots year-in-and year out. He’s also overcome adversity.

Todd Haley tapped him to transition into a full-time fullback in 2012, only for Johnson to get injured in training camp. The Steelers made an unhearalded resigning of Johnson in the 2013 off season, and Johnson worked his way back in 2013. A year after being asked to drop weight and become play fullback full time, with Health Miller and Matt Spaeth out, David Johnson stepped into the number 1 tight end role.

  • David Johnson didn’t make anyone forget he wasn’t Heath Miller in 2013, and he’s not going to do it in 2016 either.

But Johnson did have the makings of a nice comeback story until he tore his ACL in the Steelers victory over the New York Jets. The Steelers let Johnson depart to San Diego where he put up the kind of numbers you’d expect him to put up playing behind Antonio Gatesa nd Ladarius Green.

At this stage of his career, it’s clear that even at his best, David Johnson isn’t going to draw comparisons to Bennie Cunningham from fans who are my parents age, or to Mike Mularkey or Mark Bruener from fans who are 40 something. It would be idea if David Johnson could deliver at that level , but that’s simply not realistic. Jesse James might reach that level, but he’s not there now.

  • It says here that if the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers are to climb the Stairway to Seven, Ladarius Green is going to have to contribute at some point.

But Ladarius Green isn’t ready to do that now, and won’t be for some time. In the meantime, the Steelers need someone who won’t be a liability at tight end. Jesse James hasn’t shown he’s able to fill that role yet. Likewise, Xavier Grimble can’t do that yet either. David Johnson likely can.

David Johnson is in no way the Pittsburgh Steelers “answer” at tight end. But he could fill an important void in the here and now.

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