As we’ve talked about before, the Pittsburgh Steelers have moved fullback Will Johnson to the tight ends group in a move that brought a glimmer to the eye of former team offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. They did so in an effort to give the soft-handed “h-back”, as he called himself yesterday, more opportunities on the field.
In previous installments of training camp, Johnson would be working with the running backs, which would have been more advantageous to him in Arians’ old offense. But with the increased usage of the no huddle under Todd Haley, it proved to be difficult last season to get him opportunities, and it showed in his stats compared to his rookie year.
So this season, he’s working with the likes of Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, and David Paulson, learning to block and run routes as a tight end, which is typically as an in-line blocker rather than as a lead out of the backfield.
As I wrote yesterday, of course, the idea isn’t entirely foreign to the third-year man, but it is something that he has only done on a limited basis. There were instances last season, for example, during which Johnson lined up in-line as a blocker, or motioned out of the backfield as a receiver.
But, while he will be continuing to serve as a fullback this season, it seems that he will now be frequently contributing on the field as the second or third tight end, depending on the formation, which raises some interesting questions about the future of this roster and the chances of those attempting to make the team.
A year ago, Johnson was essentially the fourth running back in case of emergency, which is a role that he may continue to fill this season. This won’t necessarily change thanks to his tight end assignments, quite simply because he had a low snap count last season. The change is designed simply to get him on the field more often.
If anything, this affects the tight ends more than the running backs.
There are currently four tight ends vying for the third spot on the depth chart who have a legitimate chance. Incumbent third-year tight end Paulson would figure to be the front-runner for now, but veteran Michael Palmer, who joined the team last year, is still in the picture as well.
There are also two rookies—seventh-rounder Rob Blanchflower and priority undrafted free agent Eric Waters—scratching and scraping to make an impression, and I believe that Johnson’s influence could improve their chances of making the roster.
Moving Johnson with the tight ends undoubtedly means that only one of these four players will make the roster. But it also means that the Steelers could be more willing to take a less experienced player with greater upside along for the ride, and that could apply to both Blanchflower and Waters over the veteran tight ends.
This is because the third true tight end may not see much playing time this year with Miller and Spaeth healthy. When a situation calls for a third tight end, chances are it will be Johnson being called upon to fill that role. Whoever wins what will in essence be the fourth spot may not even be active, unless he contributes on special teams.