The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.
Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.
Question: What sort of role will tight end Jesse James have in his second season?
This is a particularly interesting question, considering that the Steelers are very much in a transitional period with respect to the tight end position: where does second-year Jesse James fit into the mix? I’m not sure that the answer is obvious, or that it is already determined.
In the immediate wake of Heath Miller’s retirement, it was thought that James might even be tasked with entering the starting lineup and absorbing the bulk of the snaps that the 11-year veteran would no longer be taking, in part because he would offer a better receiving threat.
That element of the equation went out the window after the Steelers actively targeted and acquired a high-value receiving tight end in Ladarius Green, locking him down with a four-year contract worth $20 million in total.
I think it’s safe to assume that they would not be paying Green that amount of money to function as the team’s second tight end. Perhaps he won’t log the same amount of snaps as Miller, who consistently finished among the top at his position in terms of number of snaps played, but he will certainly play the bulk of the snaps.
The real question is whether James will advance to the number two tight end in front of veteran Matt Spaeth, and there is some reason to believe that that is possible. For one thing, we saw, particularly in the first playoff game, that there are several instances in which James played over Spaeth in two-tight end sets.
When Miller missed a game, it was also James who functioned as the primary tight end, when he was far less experienced, so one might think that in the instances of single-tight end sets in which Green might not be on the field, then it will be James in his place.
The rookie’s progress over the course of his first season was talked up quite a bit during and after the year, which leads to the belief that the Steelers do expect him to continue to expand his role, which would suggest that he might ascend to the number two spot on the depth chart.
Considering that Green is also not exactly lauded for his blocking, it’s also reasonable to suspect that there will be certain instances in which the assignment is clearly related to blocking that the team would prefer to use James and Spaeth in a two-tight end set, even if the lack of the ‘receiving’ tight end might be an indicator of the plan. But sometimes you have to just beat your opponent regardless of whether or not they know what’s coming.