The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: Tight end is a strong candidate for an early draft pick.
First of all, the odds of the Steelers using an early draft pick on the tight end position are bolstered by the mere fact that they have, in fact, four selections in the first three rounds of the draft. They have more to work with than they typically have, so they can afford to be a little more versatile toward the top of the draft.
While I don’t think it will probably be in play much in the first round, barring an unusual draft that breaks highly favorably for such a scenario, it is certainly a possibility, I think, for the day-two picks in the aftermath of Jesse James signing elsewhere.
They are also due to address the position in a meaningful way. The last time they drafted a tight end earlier than the fifth round, which would be James in 2015, was—get ready for this—Matt Spaeth in 2007. Mike Tomlin’s first year in Pittsburgh.
They have only drafted four tight ends since then, the other three all being in the seventh round: David Johnson in 2009; David Paulson in 2012; and Rob Blanchflower in 2014. The former two at least spent a couple of years on the roster—Johnson had a pretty good career for himself—but Blanchflower never played for them.
In the post-Antonio Brown offense, there is also more room for two-tight end sets. Couple that with the loss of James’ durability and Vance McDonald’s injury history, and the Steelers could be pressured to shore up the depth here sooner rather than later, as they have been flirting to do for the past couple of draft cycles.
While it’s true that Brown is gone, it’s also true that the Steelers threw the ball more than ever last season, and also made more use of three-, four-, and five-receiver sets than ever before as well. So more receivers means fewer tight ends, and they still have Eli Rogers and Ryan Switzer as enticing slot options who can win their routes.
Xavier Grimble can’t be ignored in this discussion, whether one feels he should be or not. I’m not certain that the team views him as only capable of being a number three tight end, especially if the role is reduced.
The Steelers very nearly went into the 2017 season with James, Grimble, and David Johnson as their three tight ends, by the way. And they still have Bucky Hodges and could bring Jake McGee back as well. Their history suggests they will add a day-three player here to work behind McDonald.