Following the same season in which the Pittsburgh Steelers believe that they may have found their top tight end for the near future in Vance McDonald, they were also dealt a blow in losing their reliable number two target in Jesse James, whom they drafted as an underclassman out of Penn State in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
James, who has spent much of the past three seasons serving as the team’s de facto tight end due to injuries, first to Ladarius Green and then to McDonald, had his best season as he transitioned to more of a complementary role in the Steelers’ offense last season.
He held a role significant enough that it’s hard to imagine the Steelers not addressing the loss at some point this offseason. The only other tight ends on the roster are Xavier Grimble, whom they tabbed as a restricted free agent, Bucky Hodges, who was on the practice squad last year, and Christian Scotland-Williamson, an English rugby player.
When Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin met with the local media earlier this week in attendance at the annual league meeting, he essentially acknowledged the reality of the situation, telling reporters, according to Mark Kaboly, that “I’m sure we will” address the tight end position over the course of the offseason.
Mike Tomlin said “I’m sure we will” when asked about adding to the tight end room. Mentioned free agency and the draft. “I am sure that will be addressed.” Steelers only have McDonald and Grimble.
— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly) March 25, 2019
To that end, the team did previously host James O’Shaunessy on a free agent visit a couple of weeks ago, but he signed a two-year contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars after that worth $2.225 million with $400,000 guaranteed. Grimble’s restricted free agent tender amount is nearly worth that much.
The Steelers have also been paying a lot of attention, seemingly, to the tight end class during their Pro Day rounds—and perhaps they may benefit from the fact that Heath Miller served as a mentor to the tight ends at the NFL Scouting Combine earlier this offseason, if he can pass along any insights.
The Steelers have not drafted any tight ends since they selected James in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, and they have not used a selection higher than the fifth round on the position since they drafted Matt Spaeth in Tomlin’s first season in Pittsburgh all the way back in 2007.
Of course, the fact that they had Miller for that entire time, and Spaeth for the majority of that time, necessarily means that it wasn’t required for them to address the position in a significant way. They also got serviceable play from 2009 seventh-round pick David Johnson during that timespan.
But would it be surprising for the team to use a relatively early pick at the position this year? Certainly not. In fact, they have been flirting with drafting a tight end for a couple of years, and now that they have lost one of their top two—and the fact that they have 10 draft picks—it’s difficult to imagine them not doing so, unless they sign a free agent in the meantime.