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 pessimist’s take on the following question.
Question: What sort of role will tight end Jesse James have in his second season?
The Steelers were very active last season in turning over every stone in search of a tight end that they could live with, through free agency and the draft, and they came away with Jesse James, out of Penn State, in the fifth round, knowing all the while that he was unlikely to make that much of an impact in his first NFL season.
For one thing, he would be third on the depth chart at best. For another, he was a true junior, and just 20 years old at the time he was drafted, and he would need time not just to mature in their system, but into his own body. There were also notes of their belief that he wasn’t utilized properly in college, which would lead to a longer transition time to get him to play as they would like.
But the training wheels are off in his second season in the wake of Heath Miller’s retirement—or are they? After all, veteran Matt Spaeth is still here for at least one more season, and they did just go out and spend significant money in order to bring in Ladarius Green from the Chargers. They are not going to pay somebody $5 million a season not to play him.
So clearly, Green is going to be the starter, even if he might not see quite the same number of snaps as Miller did. Or perhaps he will. Perhaps that is how Todd Haley simply likes to use his starting tight end. And with the receiving dimension that Green brings—especially in a season absent Martavis Bryant—it will be only more enticing the utilize him as often as possible, even if it means tweaking what they were accustomed to doing with Miller.
As for the ‘battle’ between Spaeth and James, Spaeth is still the veteran with the experience and the resume, who has been a key part of the team’s run-blocking success since he returned to the Steelers three years ago, and with Miller’s departure, it will likely only make them all the more hesitant to move away from his veteran presence on the field.
James will get some snaps, to be sure. I believe of that there can be no doubt. But he likely will not be the ‘number two’ tight end. I think it’s more likely that there will be no number two tight end, but rather there will be a greater diversity of personnel usage than has been in the past, given all that has changed from this year to last. And perhaps in 2017, James will be the clear number two, logging hundreds of snaps.