I put out my ‘final’ 53-man roster prediction yesterday, but the truth is that I’m not going to claw at my eyes in agony if the Pittsburgh Steelers decide to go in minutely different directions, because the truth is that, more often than not, the final handful of spots on the roster are not going to make all that much of a difference.
One area in which the team can diverge from my plans is the possibility of them carrying four tight ends, which, despite the fact that they just traded for a tight end because they were not satisfied with their current group, has its own logical plausibility.
For starters, all of them were on the roster last year, and were in fact the primary contributors at the position. For another, they were all the ones presumed to be making the roster before the trade was made. And finally, they have a deep recent history of carrying four tight ends.
Let’s just start with last season. There were extenuating circumstances due to the PUP stint from Ladarius Green, but he spent about half the season on the 53-man roster—plus the playoffs, even though he didn’t play—and he did so with a roster that also included Jesse James, David Johnson, and Xavier Grimble.
The year before that, the team still had Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, with James as a rookie. They also, you may remember, still had Will Johnson, who by then had already become a player who was primarily a tight end rather than h-back in the way he was used. Roosevelt Nix made sure to put the final nail in that coffin.
So we already have two years’ worth of data on them keeping four tight ends, let’s keep going. In 2014, they still had Miller and Spaeth, and Will Johnson was by then already primarily playing a tight end role. Don’t believe me? I wrote about it last year. That season, 152 of his 219 snaps came in that role, with another 17 as a ‘victory back’ in the victory formation. He was a tight end.
And who else was there? Michael Palmer. Remember him? He spent two years with the Steelers as their fourth tight end, in 2014 and in 2013. In the latter season, he was paired with Miller, Spaeth, Johnson, and David Paulson. But Johnson went on IR early in the season and Spaeth spent most of the season on IR before returning, so they didn’t overlap.
That’s four consecutive seasons now in which the Steelers carried four ‘true’ tight ends, and you’ll notice that I didn’t include Will Johnson in 2013, because he was being used as a fullback at that time. David Johnson, however, with Will there, was moved back to tight end.
And it could have been five consecutive years had David Johnson not suffered a torn ACL during the 2012 preseason. Had he been healthy, the team was likely to carry Miller, Paulson, Leonard Pope, and Johnson. Will Johnson was already on board as the fullback at this time as well.
So don’t be surprised at all if the team finishes up the final 53-man roster tomorrow and there are four tight ends on it. It could even still be Jake McGee, earning that Michael Palmer-like fourth tight end spot via his special teams contributions. They were feeding him those snaps for a reason.