Training Camp Battles: Tight Ends


Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo

Although it would seem that running backs or wide receivers would be next in the progression, I think the tight end situation poses the most interesting questions just now. The retirement of Heath Miller, who I believe the Steelers thought would play this year, and cutting of Matt Spaeth, who failed his physical after knee surgery in the offseason, has left a gaping void, and as we know nature abhors a vacuum.

The Steelers lost no time after the start of free agency in signing Ladarius Green, but it is troubling that there is still “no timetable for his return” from the PUP list. So since it just wouldn’t do not to have a veteran presence, the Steelers re-signed David Johnson, who is back after two years with Green’s old team, San Diego.

Jesse James appears to be the anointed No. 1 in the absence of Green, who will probably step right into that role, assuming his return doesn’t drag on too long. But it is an interesting question what will happen should Green not return prior to the season opener. If Jesse James has filled the role well in Green’s absence, are the Steelers necessarily going to depose him for someone who hasn’t ever practiced with the team?

All that said, though, Ed Bouchette remarked on his Tuesday chat that it was possible Green would practice as early as this weekend. I haven’t seen any hint of such a thing anywhere else, but Bouchette is, after all, the “Steelers insider.” As of Friday evening he’s still on the PUP list. Which is unfortunately different than PUP night at PNC Park, in which you can bring your dog to a game. The PUP list isn’t a fun thing in football…
And then there is the question of what role David Johnson fills. I thought he looked great at training camp in the first practice, and Ivan made the comment that he thought Steeler Nation had always undervalued him. During last week’s practices he looked even better. He’s not only easily the best guy at the sled drill, he makes tricky catches look easy. He’s certainly worked hard since he was last in Pittsburgh.

Behind both of them is Xavier Grimble, who spent last season on the practice squad, and whom Ben, and the staff, seem to like. In the early going he kept succumbing to the heat (he left practice on both Friday and Sunday in the late July practices, Friday with cramps, Sunday with heat exhaustion.) But he seems to be over that now.

There are also a couple of rookies, Mandel Dixon, a recent invitee, and Pittsburgh native Paul Lang, who the Steelers picked up when he was cut after the Lions’ minicamp. Whatever else happens, I’m sure Lang would love nothing more than to make some really awesome play during the Steelers-Lions preseason game, just to make a statement.

Since I wrote the preceding paragraph Dixon has been injured and waived, and replaced by Jake Phillips, a 6’6″ rookie out of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. As far as I can determine, this was the first place he’s been offered since going undrafted.

And since writing that Phillips has been cut and replaced by Michael Cooper, who the Redskins cut in June after signing him as a UDFA. It’s that time of year, folks. By the time I put something up it’s out of date.

In terms of size,  Cooper, Grimble and Lang (sounds like a law firm) are pretty similar. Jesse James, at 6’7″, is a couple inches taller than they, but they all weigh about 260, so they look rather different on the field, with James seeming rather willowy by contrast. (Just have a look at the picture at the top, standing next to Green.) However, I gather he worked out over the offseason at the same facility as Heath Miller always used, and came back considerably stronger, so maybe he just has one of those body types that doesn’t bulk up much.

So how are they doing so far? It’s hard to say much beyond Johnson, James and Grimble, as the cast of characters keep changing so rapidly. We do know after the Friday night practice that Johnson was the only guy, out of all the TEs and running backs, who could block Anthony Chickillo during backs on backers. But I’ve seen all of them thus far except for Cooper, and they all seem to catch the ball reliably. Jim Wexell feels that Grimble is plagued with inconsistency, but isn’t this true of all of us? That said, in the end it won’t matter how much Ben likes him if they don’t trust him.

Really, what this says is that somebody really needs to step it up just in case Green’s recovery stretches out longer than anticipated. I think the Steelers feel a reasonable level of comfort with Jesse James and David Johnson, but behind them are only question marks. We’ll see who, if anyone, emerges from the pack.

to be continued

Click the italicized text to read the earlier posts in the series—Veteranosity vs. Youth, Quarterbackand Defensive Tackle.





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