It is rather understandable that in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh Steelers releasing a player whom they signed to be a long-term starter just a year ago, there are a lot of questions being asked, and there are not enough answers to satisfy them. But the fundamental question that now surfaces is a simple one without one definitive answer: where do they go from here?
After Heath Miller retired, the Steelers gave Ladarius Green a four-year contract worth $20 million to become their new starting tight end. He was never healthy enough to be able to settle into that role, although the game in which he did get the opportunity to participate revealed a dynamic player who appeared to be what they were hoping they had signed.
After failing his physical yesterday and being subsequently released, the team still retains three tight ends from last year’s roster—in fact, the group that they spent the majority of their time working with.
Third-year tight end Jesse James is a bit of an everyman tight end that doesn’t do any one thing particularly poorly or well, but is serviceable enough that the offense can function with him playing the top role. The natural hope here is that he continues to improve.
Following James is David Johnson, who functions as their primary blocking tight end, a role that became more defined as the season evolved. He is their most physical and reliable people-mover that they have at the position.
Wrapping things up, we have Xavier Grimble, a former undrafted free agent that kicked around for a couple of years. He finally stuck on the Steelers’ practice squad in 2015 and made the roster last year. He has flashed ability, yet remains an inconsistent, and thus ultimately unreliable, option.
So what, then, are their other options? They could, of course, seek a veteran tight end, and Alex Kozora laid out some of the best possible options yesterday evening. The biggest name out there is former Browns tight end Gary Barnidge, whose numbers took a nose dive as Cleveland saw five different quarterbacks play over the course of the year behind a bad offensive line.
If they choose not to add a significant tight end and instead choose to enter the season with their in-house options, there are other things that they can do to mitigate the loss of Green. They could nurture one of their undrafted rookie tight ends, one a pass-catcher and the other a blocker.
Or they could rely upon fewer tight ends, even incorporate more three- and four-receiver personnel, which might seem especially attractive at this time given the return of Martavis Bryant and the addition of JuJu Smith-Schuster. That’s where the talent lies; it would behoove one to utilize it, after all.
A bit more specifically than simply using more wide receivers more often, we could see players like Smith-Schuster, Bryant, and perhaps Sammie Coates garnering more time playing out of the slot, which would allow the Steelers to replicate a larger, more physical presence between the hash marks, and run some of the same sorts of plays that they might have with Green with the hope of catching the defense in a mismatch.