The Pittsburgh Steelers may not have addressed the tight end position in an overly significant way in quite a while—Matt Spaeth in 2007 has been the team’s most recent draft pick at the position in the first three rounds, and his re-signing has been the most significant free agency addition—the team hasn’t ignored that spot.
In fact, over the last several years it has been a frequent target in the seventh round of the draft, with David Johnson being selected there in 2009, followed by David Paulson in 2012, and, most recently, Rob Blanchflower in 2014.
Unfortunately, that spot has been delivering diminishing returns of late. The Steelers were able to get a few years’ worth of production out of Johnson, including work at the fullback position, and has gone on to play for the Chargers, but Paulson was never a significant contributor, with his biggest contribution being a fumble. His last NFL action was in 2013.
Blanchflower’s case has been the most unfortunate of the three, and not simply because he was released yesterday with a failed physical—though he was not under contract for 2016 anyway—but also because he seemed to be the closest thing to the team’s prototypical tight end that they had been able to find from that spot.
Blanchflower was the sort of dual purpose tight end that the Steelers prefer for their offense, a position that Kevin Colbert yesterday referred to as a dinosaur given the way that the college tight end has lost its place as a blocker in today’s offenses in that level.
To find a player such as Blanchflower, at 6’4” and over 250 pounds, who already put in the college work as a blocking tight end, led some to have relatively high hopes for the young man that he would at least be able to make the roster, but that simply has not been the case, largely because he hasn’t been healthy.
And that issue—health—has been one that has affected him since his college days, with his senior season marred by injury, and perhaps playing a role in his being drafted in the seventh round. He battled injuries in his rookie training camp, limiting his opportunities, and that resulted in him being stuck on the practice squad.
In 2015, he barely even made it into training camp, being waived injured in early August, replaced on the 90-man roster by another tight end. The Steelers carried him on injured reserve all season after he cleared waivers, but clearly they had seen enough and decided that it was time to move on.
Perhaps part of what they had seen, though, was Jesse James, the Steelers’ rookie fifth-round tight end that they drafted last year, a 6’7”, 261-pounder in the model of Spaeth who performed admirably his rookie year, eventually taking over the third tight end role, and even seeing some work as a number two tight end, recording a touchdown pass and throwing a couple of key blocks to boot.
It’s not clear to me exactly what the nature of his injury was or how prolonged it might be or have been, but the Steelers made the decision to waive him now because he wasn’t in their plans going forward. They still have Will Johnson they can re-sign, and Xavier Grimble from the practice squad a year ago, and are now seemingly perennially on the search for the elusive blocking tight end in the draft. Blanchflower’s time had simply run out.