It was nearly a month ago when I wrote about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ tight end position during the 2016 season relative to what they had to work with for the previous season in 2015, which proved to be the final campaigns in the careers of Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, who had been the team’s top two tight ends for the majority of the prior decade.
Miller has in the past put up Pro Bowl numbers as a pass catcher in his career, when the offense was in a position to feature him, but he always managed to get his. Still, there was a decline toward the end of his career—and as for Spaeth, he was never much for the whole receiving thing.
I wrote at that time that the Steelers in 2016, spending the majority of the year with a scrappy group of replacements that was absent their prized free agent signing, had actually been getting better production numbers from the tight end position than they were able to get in the previous season. Now that the regular season is actually over, it would probably be fitting to take the time to update those numbers.
As a reminder, Miller in his final season of 2015 caught 60 passes for 535 yards, as he became more and more of a possession receiver, averaging fewer than nine yards per reception. He ended the season with two touchdowns, with the year proving to be comfortably among his least efficient performances in his career.
The Steelers did not get much contribution from the rest of their tight end group either, as should probably be anticipated. Spaeth had just two receptions for 10 yards, while Will Johnson also had just two receptions, for 16 yards.
It was the rookie, Jesse James, who looked like he may be able to contribute to the passing game in the future. During his rookie year, in eight games, he caught eight passes for 56 yards and a touchdown. He also had a 22-yard reception in the postseason.
All told, the group caught 72 passes for 617 yards and three touchdowns, averaging about 8.6 yards per reception. Those are pretty pedestrian numbers, to be generous, for what is expected out of the tight end position in the modern offense.
Flash forward into year two, with James having spent most of the season being featured as the primary pass catcher, but with a greater variety and distribution in contributions. James, for his part, caught 39 passes for 338 yards, and though that resulted in averaging just 8.7 yards per reception, he did have three touchdown receptions.
But he wasn’t alone, as Ladarius Green in his less than half a season’s worth of work caught another 18 passes for 304 yards and a touchdown, bringing an explosive element to the group. Xavier Grimble chipped in 11 receptions for 118 yards and two touchdowns, while David Johnson added seven more receptions for 80 yards—and a two-point conversion.
Those numbers give this group a year-end production total of 76 receptions for 840 yards, averaging 11.1 yards per reception, and six touchdowns. That is much more reflective of today’s game, and there is every reason to expect that this group is capable of achieving better next season.