Things have certainly changed for the Pittsburgh Steelers from a year ago when it comes to the tight end depth chart. Longtime veterans Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth are gone, and there have been no one-for-one replacements for either. Ladarius Green was the big free agent signing, but is a different sort of tight end from Miller, and returning David Johnson is more of an h-back than a true in-line blocker like Spaeth.
The most interesting name now in the mix, however, is first-year tight end Xavier Grimble, who spent last season on the practice squad and was able to draw enough praise from his teammates and coaches to draw the attention of even those of us who have yet to have an opportunity to see him in a Steelers jersey.
His path to a roster spot got a lot more clear after the Steelers released Spaeth with a failed physical. In truth, all four tight ends—Green, Jesse James, Johnson, and Grimble—could conceivably make the 53-man roster this year. Just last year, the team carried Miller, Spaeth, James, and Will Johnson on the roster, Will being a player much like David, and, in fact, the former once replacing the latter.
By and large, however, we know what sort of player each of this candidates short of Grimble will be for the Steelers, and what sort of potential they have. Green is going to be a pass catcher first and a blocker decidedly second—elsewise their money was ill-spent. James is a rising second-year player who hopes to do a bit of everything. Johnson is a grinder who can block from out of the backfield or on the line of scrimmage.
Grimble’s position within the tight end depth chart and in the offense is a bit more mercurial, and not just because we haven’t yet had the opportunity to see him practice in a Steelers uniform. We know from reports that he has shown some quality athleticism and pass-catching ability, but he should also have the size and physicality to be able to offer something as a blocker.
Originally signed as an undrafted free agent in 2014 by the Giants after declaring early, the 23-year-old USC product has been unable to catch on in New York, nor in San Francisco or New England, but he did spent time on the practice squads of both teams in 2014.
Grimble was signed by the Steelers to the practice squad on September 7, two days after the 49ers cut him during final roster cuts, and he remained there for the entirety of the season, drawing praise and biding his time in the process.
With training camp just around the corner, it would seem that his time is now. He is still quite young and in retention of all of his physical assets, but he has matured over the past two seasons. He has experience in the Steelers’ system, and they potentially have a roster spot open for him. Seemingly all he has to do is go out and earn it.