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James’ Departure, McDonald’s Health Means Steelers Tight End Depth Needs To Be Reviewed

The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the start of the 2019 offseason with more than just a few holes. These holes varied in size ranging anywhere from big enough to drive a bus through to small, minor holes. Inside linebacker and cornerback would seem to fall into the first category, while wide receiver fell somewhere in the middle. Tight end may not have seemed like an obvious position of need but it has certainly become one with the departure of long-time backup tight end Jesse James in free agency.

James’ departure is not the end of the world, the Steelers still have a more than serviceable option at tight end in Vance McDonald. While his talent has been stellar, his medical history has been worrisome. For the first time since his rookie season, McDonald suited up for 15 games last season. His almost-perfect attendance record led to a career high in receptions (50) and yards (610) though he was afforded the luxury of having a reliable backup in James. McDonald played in 54.7% of the team’s offensive snaps while James played in 50.4%. The Steelers are not just losing James’ production but they are also losing a huge insurance policy for McDonald, who has never suited up for a full 16-game season.

Without James, the Steelers’ tight end room goes from very balanced to very top heavy. The talent drop-off between McDonald and the rest of the depth chart is very steep. Behind McDonald, the Steelers have Xavier Grimble, Bucky Hodges, Kevin Rader and Christian Scotland-Williamson. Grimble is the only tight end mentioned to have any impact during the 2018-year, recording just six receptions for 86 yards. He is also the only tight end to record a catch during competitive NFL action. Without Grimble, it is zeros all across the board. Even with Grimble, the group only combines for 22 receptions for 236 yards and three touchdowns.

For comparison’s sake, James’ season output in each of his last three seasons outweighs Grimble’s career output.

The Steelers must see something in Grimble as he has been a member of the roster since 2016 and will likely be part of their 2019 roster after being given an original round tender. While the team may recognize Grimble’s blocking, athleticism and familiarity with the system, it is hard to decipher just how much confidence the team has in him stepping up to the #2 tight end position. After all, this is a player who fumbled (at the goal line) his lone big play opportunity during last season.

Entering the second week of the new league year, the Steelers still have some options available should they want to improve on the depth of the tight end group. There are still a handful of free agents available and the NFL Draft will also offer an opportunity to bolster up the unit. Former Ravens’ tight end Maxx Williams is still available, as are the likes of James O’Shaughnessy and Darren Fells. Certainly not the cream of the crop but tight ends have disappeared quickly during the first wave of free agency. O’Shaughnessy, by the way, reportedly visited with the Steelers on Monday.

The Steelers have shown some interest at the incoming tight end prospect pools should they opt to upgrade the position with the NFL Draft. The team met with LSU tight end Foster Moreau at this year’s Senior Bowl. Moreau is a great blocker but has yet to tap into the full potential of his receiving abilities.

The tight end position is an important position in the Steelers’ offense. Ben Roethlisberger developed a great rapport with McDonald and James, serving as his security blanket while also showing some surprising big play ability last season. At this point, the tight end room is filled with uncharted waters after McDonald and it will be interesting to see how the Steelers address the uncertainty moving forward.

 

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