As the calendar has finally hit the late-July date that signals the start of training camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers, we turn our attentions for the next few weeks to just that, training camp, the necessary respite for all football fans who have been the past six weeks wondering what to do with themselves—as least as far as the game goes.
With the start of training camp also comes the start of meaningful competition, and I’m not just talking about players getting to put on pads and smash into each other. There are battles to be won. Position battles, roster battles. Battles for starting jobs.
Before we get too deep into the swing of training camp, here is a quick series that provides a preview of some of the most significant battles that will have to be determined over the course of training camp and the preseason, though the regular season can always decide to change the results.
While it has been taken by most as a foregone conclusion that third-year tight end Jesse James is going to continue to function as the team’s top player at the position, as he did for the majority of last season due to the variety of ailments suffered by Ladarius Green, it is fair to wonder what that might look like in the second go-around.
At the start of the season, the Steelers hardly took James off the field at all, but we saw roles and duties morph over the course of the season based on who as available and who was performing. In the weeks before Green was promoted to the active roster, Xavier Grimble was seeing an increased role. Then everybody’s role was reduced with Green on the field.
Toward the end of the year, the team began to rely upon David Johnson to serve in run-blocking roles, either as the lone tight end on the field or even paired with Chris Hubbard as an extra lineman.
This is where my thoughts are as we head into the 2017 season. While Johnson had been here before, James was the only continuity on the roster at the tight end position last year, so they relied upon him more early one while they learned what others could do.
Now the group does have the year-to-year continuity, and all of them are healthy. So I can easily see the Steelers rely upon a more diversified approach to the tight end position, especially with nobody really standing out as a true number one.
James is still struggling to make the tough catches. Grimble is still dropping too many passes, even while he makes impressive ones, and has improved as a blocker. Johnson is the best blocker of the group, but is still limited, including simply due to his height.
Individually, it is a fairly unremarkable group, but together, they can perform at a level greater than the sum of their parts. But will they just throw everything at James and hope he can handle it?