Steelers Draft Pat Freiermuth, 2nd Round 2021, as Nittany Lion Return to Tight End Depth Chart

Well, I guess we know why the Steelers didn’t sign Jesse James, although its clear that someone on the South Side was had their ear tuned to the purr of the Nittnay Lions.

One night after playing it strictly by the book in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Steelers departed from the script and drafted Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth with their second pick.

  • Well, maybe that’s a little strong. The move should not come as a surprise, as tight end is a clear area of need.

Our Steelers Draft Needs Matrix rated it a 4th level priority, and staff writer Tony Defeo marked tight end even higher at High need. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Gerry Dulac went as far as to suggest the Steelers would draft Pat Freiermuth.

Still the expectation was that the Steelers would stick to the offensive line during round two, drafting either a center or an offensive tackle. However, two of the tackles Pittsburgh purportedly coveted were off the board before they could pick, and Kevin Colbert stuck to his pledge not to sacrifice draft picks to move up.

Steelers tight end coach Alfredo Roberts explained the decision to pick Freiermuth: “He’s going to be a kind of throwback tight end. He can play different positions, do multiple things. His position flexibility will allow us to do a lot of different things.”

And the Steelers do need a tight end who can “do a lot of different things.”

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers second round draft pick 2021

Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth out foxing Maryland defenders. Photo Credit Abby Drey, via Central Daily

Pat Freiermuth Video Highlights

At 6-5, 251 pound and having worn 87 for Penn State, Pat Freiermuth certainly fits the bill of a two way, throwback tight end. Here’s a look at his tape.

He certainly has good hands and definitely does not shy away from after the catch contact. Doing it in the NFL won’t be quite as easy as it was doing it in the NCAA, but he offers a lot of promise. It would be nice to see video on his blocking, but I guess that doesn’t generated page views.

How Pat Freiermuth Fits into the Steelers Scheme

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

The Steelers have been wandering in the wilderness at tight end since Heath Miller. Heath Miller was a picture of dependability in the passing game, a strong blocker and a quiet force who led by example in the locker room.

Since Miller departed, Pittsburgh has thrown money at Ladarius Green, whose ankle and concussion injuries limited him to a handful of games and qualified him as one of the Steelers all-time free agent busts.

They traded for Vance McDonald, who was injured most of his first year in Pittsburgh. Vance McDonald had a strong season in 2018, was inconsistent in 2019, and used sporadically in 2020. Things got so bad in 2019 that Kevin Colbert had to trade for Nick Vannett and Mike Tomlin started him that very week. (Nick Vannett played well in that first game, then disappeared.)

For a while there, it looked liked Xavier Grimble might have worked himself up from the practice squad to a competent number 2 tight end, but that was not to be either.

They signed Eric Ebron as a free agent last spring, and while Ebron did some nice things, particularly in the Red Zone, his blocking skills are non-existent and he had trouble holding on to the ball. As for Zach Gentry he hasn’t done much other than get injured.

Suffice to say, Pat Freiermuth doesn’t even need to complete the run test at St. Vincents to immediately upgrade the Steelers depth chart at tight end.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Pat Freiermuth.

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Steelers in Tight Spot @ Tight End Heading into 2021 NFL Draft

The Steelers entered 2020 in great shape at the tight end position, thanks to the free-agent signing of veteran Eric Ebron. But after the sudden retirement of Vance McDonald this offseason, what kind of shape is Pittsburgh in at tight end heading into the 2021 NFL Draft?

Eric Ebron, Steelers vs Colts

Eric Ebron scores a touchdown in the 3rd quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

The Steelers Draft Needs at Tight End: The Starters

A number-one choice by the Lions in 2014, Ebron spent his first four seasons in Detroit before signing with the Colts as a free agent in 2018. After two years in Indianapolis, Ebron signed a two-year deal with the Steelers last March.

At 6’4″ and 253 pounds, Ebron didn’t come to Pittsburgh as a traditional Steelers tight end in the mold of a Heath Miller, but he certainly appeared to be their most explosive talent at the position since perhaps the days of Eric Green. Ebron caught 56 passes for 558 yards and five touchdowns a year ago.

However, he did have his share of drops and was one of the league leaders in that category. There was speculation early in the offseason that Ebron would be a cap casualty, but he restructured his deal and will return for 2021 as the team’s only proven commodity at the position.

The Steelers Draft Needs at Tight End: The Backups

Zach Gentry, the fifth-round pick out of Michigan in 2019 NFL Draft, has barely made a dent as an NFL player over his first two seasons. To put that in perspective, he has as many season-ending injuries as he does receptions (one). The same can be said for Kevin Rader, Charles Jones and Dax Raymond, former UDFAs who round out Pittsburgh’s tight end depth chart.

The Steelers Draft Needs at Tight End

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftAgain, Eric Ebron is the lone returning starter. And while Ebron brings his assets to the offense, particularly in the Red Zone, his blocking leaves a lot to be desired (and that’s being generous.)

With nobody even remotely ready to take McDonald’s place atop the depth chart, the tight end position is one the Steelers really need to invest in during the 2021 NFL Draft.

After Kyle Pitts, Florida’s highly-rated prospect, there doesn’t appear to be another tight end the Steelers could realistically take in the first round. But considering they didn’t address the position with even a journeyman free-agent signing, they should certainly make tight end a priority in one of the next two rounds.

No matter how you split it, the Steelers needs at tight end heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered High

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Steelers 2020 Tight End Draft Needs — Does Eric Ebron Change Priorities for Pittsburgh?

It wasn’t long ago that the Steelers appeared to be severely lacking at the tight end position. That seemed to change with the free agent acquisition of Eric Ebron in March. But was Eric Ebron enough of an addition to make tight end less of a priority for the 2020 NFL Draft? We’re about to answer that question.

Eric Ebron, Colts

New Steelers tight end Eric Ebron, with the Colts in 2019. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

It’s fairly accurate to make the word starters plural when discussing the tight end position in the Steelers offense. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, it was mostly a singular term in 2019–and that may have even been a stretch.

After coming off an exceptional and breakout season in 2018, veteran Vance McDonald seemed to disappear a year ago, catching just 38 passes for 273 yards and three scores. In fairness to McDonald, however, he, like every other receiving target, may have been severely limited due to the mostly season-long absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

As for others stepping up to fill the void left by Jesse James, who inked a free agent deal with the Lions? Xavier Grimble, a veteran who was looking to move up the depth chart following James’ departure, was injured and then waived. Nick Vannett, a four-year veteran Pittsburgh acquired in a trade with the Seahawks early in the year, contributed just 13 receptions for 166 yards in the number two role.

  • So you can see why the concern was there to add another viable weapon at tight end.

And viable, Ebron is. Yes, like McDonald, Ebron, who made the Pro Bowl in 2018, fell off a season ago, catching just 31 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns. But just like McDonald, Ebron was hit with the sudden loss of his franchise quarterback, thanks to the surprising retirement of Andrew Luck right before the start of the regular season. And while it is true that Jacoby Brissett, the young Colts quarterback who stepped in to take Luck’s place, was much further along in experience and development than both Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges a season ago, his performance wasn’t quite on the level of Luck’s.

And we would be remiss without mentioning Ebron’s ankle injury that forced Indianapolis to place him on Injured Reserve late in the 2019 season.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Backups

Coming into his rookie season as a fifth-round pick out of Michigan, Zach Gentry, a converted quarterback who caught 49 passes in his college career, was expected to be a bit of a developmental project at the tight end spot. Gentry didn’t disappoint in that regard, as he appeared in just four games and caught one pass.

Rounding out Pittsburgh’s depth chart at the tight end spot is Christian Scotland-Williamson, a native of Waltham Forest, England and a former rugby player. Scotland-Williamson spent the previous two seasons on Pittsburgh’s practice squad and was signed to a reserve/future contract following the 2019 season.

The Steelers 2020 Tight End Draft Needs

Again, what looked like a position of great need heading into free agency now seems to be one of strength, thanks to the addition of Ebron. If he can return to his Pro Bowl form under Ben Roethlisberger, he could be a dangerous weapon in Pittsburgh’s offense.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Ebron has a history of decent production playing with high-caliber quarterbacks — his first quarterback was Matthew Stafford after the Lions picked him in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft— and he has 283 receptions for just under 3200 yards in his six-year career.

Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron should complement each other quite nicely moving forward.

As for adding depth behind the top two tight ends? It should be a priority, but only a Moderate-Low one.

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Tight Spot. Eric Ebron Signing Shows Steelers Still Struggle to Replace Heath Miller

As the dust is settling on the first phase of free agency, reaction is generally positive to the Steelers signing of Eric Ebron, a former first round draft pick at tight end who most recently played for the Colts. If reports are correct, the Steelers have signed Eric Ebron to a 2 year 12 million dollar contract.

Eric Ebron, Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, Terrell Edmunds

New Steelers tight end Eric Ebron gets gang tackled in 2019. Photo Credit: 937thefan.radio.com

The move comes as a mild surprise, given that Vance McDonald had been slotted as a possible salary cap casualty (and likely would have been gone had the NFLPA not ratified the CBA.)

So instead of jettisoning one high-priced tight end, and going with a bargain-basement renewal of Nick Vannett’s contract, untested rising sophomore Zach Gentry and an unknown draft pick, the Steelers will field two veteran tight ends.

  • That makes sense, as the Steelers clearly need to beef up their production at tight end.

As mentioned above, Eric Ebron’s arrival in Pittsburgh has been met with qualified praise. The key is “qualified.” At the Tribune-Review, Tim Benz conceded that we should be “concerned” and “skeptical” about Eric Ebron’s attitude issues, but argued the Steelers were better for “giving him a shot.”

At The Athletic, Mark Kaboly praised Ebron’s athletic prowess, while warning of his “poor blocking, bad hands and a reputation as a diva….” Over at Steel City Inside, Matt C. Steel admits to having “questions about Ebron as a person and a player.” Yet, Steel is excited about Ebron’s arrival because of his athletic talent and because of the deeper significance that the signing suggests about the evolution of the Steelers offense.

The fact that commentators need to couch their analysis with qualifiers underlines one simple truth:

  • Four years after his retirement, the Steelers are still struggling to replace Heath Miller.

Can Eric Ebron change that? Perhaps. But history suggests fans should be skeptical.

Dependability is Hard to Replace

If you had to name 1 unsung hero of the Steelers 2nd Super Bowl era, you’d be wise to name Heath Miller. No, Heath Miller didn’t toil in obscurity in the shadow of multiple Lombardis the way, say Larry Brown did. Those spontaneous cheer’s of “Heath!” every time he caught the ball offer sufficient proof.

Jesse James.

Jesse James scores against the Panthers.

But if you had to make a list of the 4 most essential players of the Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII teams, you’d like name Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward on offense and Troy Polamalu and James Farrior on defense.

Sure, you wouldn’t have to expand the size of the list too much to get to Heath Miller’s name, but several other names would probably make it before Miller.

Heath Miller didn’t bring a lot of star power to the offense, instead he delivered something that is almost intangible: Dependability.

The Steelers drafted Jesse James in 2015, Miller’s last year, and to be honest, Jesse James did deliver some of that dependability in the passing game, albeit on a smaller scale. Knowing that James really wasn’t a viable replacement for Miller, the Steelers made a splash free agent signing of Ladarius Green.

  • Like Ebron, Green had the speed an athleticism to stretch the field and, on paper, revolutionize the Steelers offense.

The truth is, during his stint as a Steeler, Ladarius Green delivered “field flipping” capability to the Steelers offense. Unfortunately, Ladarius Green’s Steelers career lasted all of 6 games. Fast forward to the tail end of the 2017 preseason where the Steelers did the (then) uncharacteristic and traded for Vance McDonald.

But injuries kept McDonald on the sideline for much of the 2017 regular season, and he virtually disappeared in 2019. The Steelers (as well as yours truly) thought they’d developed a Xavier Grimble as a legit number 2 tight end going into 2019. They hadn’t and Kevin Colbert had to spend precious draft capital to trade for Nick Vannett.

Vannett did well given the circumstances, but clearly, he wasn’t the answer.

  • Will Eric Ebron be any different?

Maybe. But the Steelers best options at tight end since Miller’s retirement have been James and McDonald. More athletic players like Ladarius Green have struggled. Eric Ebron would fit the latter category, but as Mike Tomlin would insist, “He is writing is own story.”

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Need to Beef Up at Tight End, But Expect Free Agent Nick Vannett to Depart Pittsburgh

One can debate whether quality tight end play is an essential ingredient to a Steelers Super Bowl season, but Heath Miller’s dependability sure did contribute to wins in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

  • Since Heath Miller retired, the Steelers have struggled to play consistently well at tight end.

One move they made to remedy that in 2019 was to bring in Nick Vannett. At 6’6″ and 261 lbs, Nick Vannett certainly looks the part. However, is he productive enough to be a part of Pittsburgh’s offense in 2020 and beyond? That’s what we’re about to discuss.

Nick Vannett, Steelers vs Benglas

Nick Vannett in his first game as a Steeler. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Capsule Profile of Nick Vannett’s Career with the Steelers

Nick Vannett spent his first three full seasons as a member of the Seattle Seahawks, who selected him out of Ohio State in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft. But with the likes of Jimmy Graham taking most of the reps as the starting tight end, Nick Vannett could never break through the glass ceiling in Seattle, as he started just 16 games and caught 67 passes through the 2019 season, before being traded to Pittsburgh last September in exchange for a fifth-round draft pick.

As the number two tight end behind Vance McDonald, however, Vannett caught only 13 passes for 128 yards over the final 13 weeks. He did step in and start his first game for the Steelers, making a critical third down conversion catch in helping the Steelers beat the Bengals for their first win of 2019.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Nick Vannett in 2020

Yes, Nick Vannett’s productivity was lacking a season ago, but with the Steelers quarterback situation so compromised with the loss of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the final 14 games, very few skill position players showed out.

Again, Nick Vannett looks the part and could certainly benefit from catching passes from a healthy Roethlisberger in 2020. Would he surpass Vance McDonald in terms of productivity? Not likely. However, he could be the number two tight end the offense has been missing since Jesse James left via free agency following the 2018 season.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Nick Vannett in 2020

Vannett’s rookie contract averaged just over $760,000 per year, according to Spotrac. While his productivity certainly wouldn’t warrant the type of contract that Jesse James signed with the Lions last year, for example (James inked a four-year deal worth $25 million and included $11 million in guaranteed money — and caught just 16 passes last year), he’s likely to get a raise in free agency.

With the Steelers again up against the cap — even with an increased ceiling after the NFLPA voted to approve the new Collective Bargaining Agreement on Sunday — paying an unproductive number two tight end $1 million-plus may not be a luxury the team can afford.

Besides, Zach Gentry, a fifth-round pick out of Michigan a year ago, is looking to make a leap in his sophomore year. And while his productivity was basically non-existent in his rookie season, he’s a much younger and much cheaper alternative as the number two tight end. And even if Gentry is destined to be a number three tight end, this doesn’t mean the Steelers won’t look to the early rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft to address the position with someone with more upside than Vannett.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Nick Vannett

I think this is an easy call for the Steelers. Vance McDonald, whose salary will eat up over $7 million in cap space next season, appears to be sticking around.

The team needs to save money anywhere it can, and there’s no point in paying two tight ends seven-figure salaries. Therefore, the Steelers will move on from Nick Vannett, hope for improvements from Zach Gentry in his second season, and fortify the position in the upcoming draft.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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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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