The Pittsburgh Steelers must have felt pretty good about their quality of depth at the tight end position heading into the 2018 NFL Draft. Though they took a quick gander at the position, it doesn’t seem as though they ever came particularly close to drafting one, even doubling up on positions rather than added a tight end.
At least for the moment, however, injuries have decimated the group, with three of their top four players at the position sidelined with ailments of varying degrees. Only Jesse James, who has hardly ever missed a practice, remains standing from the core group that has been with the team for the last year.
Let’s remember that that does include Jake McGee, a first-year player who was added during training camp a year ago when rookie undrafted free agent tight end Scott Orndoff suffered an injury. McGee played well and earned himself a year on the practice squad.
The Steelers envisioned him making a push for a spot on the 53-man roster this year, but those hopes were dashed early on when he suffered an Achilles tear that ended his season way back in May during OTAs. Ryan Malleck, the player signed to replace him, has also since suffered an injury that ended his season.
The most significant injury in terms of its impact on the 2018 season is the foot injury suffered by Vance McDonald, which sidelined him for almost all of training camp, and there is no clear timetable for when he will be ready to return to practice.
Third-string tight end Xavier Grimble just underwent surgery to repair a hand injury as well. In both cases, the team hopes for them to be able to return by Week One, but in the meantime they’re working pretty short-handed in terms of talent.
Behind James are three novice tight ends, including a pair of rookies. Bucky Hodges is the ‘veteran’ of the group, a training camp addition. A 2017 sixth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings, he has already been on four different teams.
Then there is Pharoah McKever and Christian Scotland-Williamson. The latter only just began playing football as he tries to break into the league from a rugby background. He is here as an international player, which includes offseason and practice squad roster exemptions.
With the injuries, though, McKever has been the workhorse of sorts in games with James generally leaving with the starters. The 6’6” rookie undrafted free agent has a lot of work to do at his craft, but is able to contribute on special teams, and seems likely to be the frontrunner for the practice squad spot.
But what about the contributors in the meantime? How much concern should there be, both right now and a month from now, about the absence of McDonald and Grimble, and the fact that there is little behind James to pick up the slack?