The Pittsburgh Steelers entered this league year with nearly a couple dozen players scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency. They ended up retaining five of those unrestricted free agents, but did not tender their one restricted free agent, who signed elsewhere.
Pittsburgh also added help from outside of the organization at tight end, tackle, linebacker, and the defensive line, but suffered several free agency losses, chiefly at cornerback and linebacker, and suffered yet another key retirement in the process. There were no significant player releases, and no contracts were restructured. They still have six unrestricted free agents who remain unsigned.
The organization has been clear throughout recent weeks that they have essentially wrapped up all meaningful free agent activities, with the focus turning to the draft, so now is a good time to take a look back and see where each position started at the beginning of the process and where it is now leading up to the draft.
Position: Tight End
Total Positional Figure: 4
Offseason additions: 2
Offseason losses: 3
Matt Spaeth: Now the veteran of the group by a wide margin, 10th-year tight end Matt Spaeth will likely be depended upon as the Steelers’ best blocking tight end more than ever following Heath Miller’s retirement. In his age-33 season, and in the final year of his contract, however, this could be his final season.
Jesse James: A 2015 fifth-round draft choice, Jesse James spent the first half of his rookie season on the sidelines, but he logged about a couple hundred snaps down the stretch, including functioning as the primary tight end in a game that Miller missed. His role should expand in his second season as he matures into his game, and his body.
Ladarius Green: The obvious offset to losing Miller, Ladarius Green’s size-speed combination and receiving ability offer the Steelers and offensive dimension they’ve never had before, so it will be interesting to see how his inclusion into the lineup alters their scheme and how they choose to attack certain situations.
Xavier Grimble (Reserve/Future): A 2015 practice squad player, Xavier Grimble has occasionally found his name rolling off the tongues of important people over the course of the past six months, which certainly bodes well for him, but he obviously still has to be considered a longshot to make the 53-man roster at this point.
Players Lost/Not Retained (Retired):
Heath Miller: Drafted by the Steelers in the first round of the 2005 NFL draft, Heath Miller was instrumental in three championship runs, and two opportunities to hoist the Lombardi. Equally important to the team’s fundamental makeup on and off the field, he is an individual that is not simply replaced. He has now a well-earned retirement ahead of him, hopefully without too many ill effects from his playing days.
Rob Blanchflower: A 2014 seventh-round draft pick, Rob Blanchflower seemed like a Steelers sort of tight end, but could never stay healthy enough to even get the opportunity. He spent his rookie year on the practice squad and last year on injured reserve, and was released this offseason.
Notes and Draft Outlook: Though I am considering him as a fullback for the purposes of this series, Will Johnson obviously has to be mentioned here, a fifth-year player who recently signed a two-year contract with the Giants. While he spent most of his career at fullback, he began playing the bulk of his time a tight end in 2014.
Even with Miller’s retirement, I do believe the signing of Green may be all that the Steelers do to address the tight end position this offseason, with respect to the draft. Even with respect to Spaeth’s own aging, I believe that they would view fullback Roosevelt Nix as a player fungible enough to line up for the occasional snap at tight end, and they have also grown fond of using tackle-eligibles, meaning that drafting Spaeth’s eventual replacement—or the third eventual tight end behind Green and James—can wait a year.