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 2017 Draft Needs @ Tight End Low-Moderate

A Steelers tight end group led by Ladarius Green, last year’s huge free-agent pick-up from the Chargers, and complemented by Jesse James, Xavier Grimble and David Johnson looks really great on paper.

The only problem for Pittsburgh is that the guy who should be leading the way has mostly been a spectator over the first 19 games of his Steelers career. Now was that a one-year occurance, or is Ladarius Green “Damaged goods?” How the Steelers address that question will impact their plans regarding tight ends in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Jesse James, Steelers 2017 Draft need tight end

Steelers tight end Jesse James @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Tight End Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Starter

As soon as Ladarius Green was signed to a four-year, $20 million deal last March, it was understood that he’d need a good chunk of the offseason  to heal from ankle surgery he had done in January.

So, how long would Ladarius Green need to rehab? Would he be ready by the start of OTAs or mini-camp? Surely he would be 100 percent and ready to go either at or during training camp, right?

Turns out, Ladarius Green was ready by none of the above and eventually placed on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list to start the 2016 regular season.

Seems like a lengthy recovery time for ankle surgery?

  • Maybe that’s because Green’s issues were more serious.

NFL.com reporter Aditi Kinkhabwala published an article on August 11 that speculated Green’s absence from offseason and training camp activities may have been a consequence of recurring headaches due to sustaining multiple concussions during his time with the Chargers.

There were conflicting statements from the Steelers, Green and his agent regarding this rumor, but the reality was that Green didn’t make his Pittsburgh debut until a November 13 game against the Cowboys at Heinz Field.

A little over a month later, just when he seemed to be starting to develop a field flipping rapport with Ben Roethlisberger, Ladarius Green suffered yet another concussion, when he took a shot to the head in the Steelers win against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

  • Ladarius Green didn’t play another snap the rest of the regular season and the entirety of the postseason.

Despite optimism and excitement for what Ladarius Green could add to the Steelers offense in 2017, fact is, after multiple documented concussions so far in his career, his return seems like a 50/50 proposition.

Is Ladarius Green someone the Steelers want to count on over the next three seasons?

Steelers Depth Chart @ Tight End Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–Backups 

Behind Ladarius Green is Jesse James, the third-year man out of Penn State, who actually acquitted himself quite well a season ago, catching 39 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns.

  • And in three postseason games, Jesse James proved to be a nice cog in the passing game, catching 12 passes for 159 yards.11

As for Xavier Grimble, 24, after bouncing around the league for a few years, he finally found a home in Pittsburgh a year ago, making the final roster and catching 11 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns.

Rounding out the position is David Johnson, the veteran who spent his first five seasons with the Steelers, before spending 2014 and 2015 with San Diego.

During his initial stint in Pittsburgh, Johnson was primarily used as a blocker, and nothing has changed during his second stint, as Johnson caught just seven passes for 80 yards in 2016.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Tight End 

As it pertains to the Steelers current draft needs at the the tight end position, the questions are: should they gamble on Ladarius Green coming back? Should they give the starting keys to James James if Green isn’t able to continue his NFL career?Steelers 2017 Draft Needs tight end

  • Or should they draft a tight end in the first few rounds?

Provided Martavis Bryant is able to return to football in 2017 after missing all of 2016 due to a drug suspension, the Steelers offense figures to be one of the most productive in the NFL next season–and this is even without Ladarius Green’s services.

But if the Steelers do want to add insurance to the tight end spot just in case Green is unable to fulfill his obligations, they can probably forget about O.J. Howard out of Alabama and David Njoku out of Miami, as both figure to be gone by the 30th pick.

  • What about other names such as Gerald Everett from South Alabama and Evan Engram of Ole Miss who could be possibilities in rounds two or three?

With Jesse James showing improvement in his second season, I don’t think tight end is a crucial need for the Steelers in this draft. In fact, I’m willing to go as far as to say that the draft needs status of tight end for the Steelers in the 2017 NFL Draft should be considered Low-Moderate.

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