When it came to their offseason approach, one of the things that the Pittsburgh Steelers actively looked for this spring and summer was the opportunity to add the right piece to the tight end group in what they regarded as a weak draft class for the position, with an eye toward the future.
Perhaps an emphasis should be placed on the final clause of that opening statement, as it does not appear that rookie fifth-round draft pick Jesse James should expect to play in a game any time soon, if last week’s inactive status is any indication to go by.
When the Steelers faced the Ravens on Thursday night, they did so with only one true tight end active, that being, of course, 11-year veteran Heath Miller. His long-time battery mate, Matt Spaeth, was unable to play in the game due to an injury that he suffered in the previous game.
Instead of giving James, the third tight end, a helmet, the Steelers simply chose to use the extra spot on the active roster on another position.
When it came to in-game scenarios, Pittsburgh used no less than four players ahead of James on the depth chart. Unsurprisingly, it was fullback Will Johnson who served as the team’s second tight end in the comparatively rare instances in which it was required.
But the Steelers also used backup interior lineman Chris Hubbard on a number of occasions as a tackle-eligible player, who spent the first three games of the season on the inactive list as the eighth lineman. He is the one who took James’ helmet, and perhaps his snaps.
Even fullback Roosevelt Nix, who was converted from linebacker, lined up as an in-line tight end on one snap late in the game, which he does not have the appropriate body type for. On the same play, the Steelers flexed Alejandro Villanueva out wide after previously using him earlier in the season as an in-line tackle-eligible.
Today, the Steelers have to make a roster move in order to activate Martavis Bryant, the wide receiver coming off from having served a four-game suspension. There is an outside chance that James is the one who gets released, although with Spaeth dealing with an injury at the moment, that seems even more unlikely.
Still, should he manage to retain his roster spot, which I believe he will, it seems pretty telling to witness the lengths that the coaching staff went to find tight end bodies that were not their rookie tight end.
Nix, a first-year undrafted free agent, has already earned more trust in the coaching staff, as has, comparatively, rookie sixth-round defensive end L.T. Walton, who received a handful of snaps in his first game active on Thursday night.
And yet James, the 6’7” tight end, is finding it difficult, even amidst injuries, to get a helmet. In his defense, the Steelers knew that he would not be a finished product when they drafted him as a true junior—he is currently the youngest player on the team, and the only one who is 21—but one has to wonder how far he might be behind if he is losing tight end snaps to Hubbard and Nix.