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Steelers 2017 Draft Outlook: Insurance for TE Ladarius Green?

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With a wealth of tight end talent available and a potential time bomb there on their own roster, the Steelers could find themselves in a quandary early in the 2017 NFL Draft.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

The good news for the Pittsburgh Steelers — and every NFL team, really — is there will be worthy players available at every pick in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

The bad news is there may be too many to choose from. If that’s truly the worst news, then it’s some great bad news to have.

We’ve already looked at several positions where the available talent is deep: EDGE rusher, running back and wide receiver. One spot that has been sorely due for a really strong, really deep draft class, though, has been tight end. This year, it’s a bumper crop.

That’s likely music to Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert’s ears. Heath Miller’s unexpected retirement after the 2015 season left a void. Second-year pro Jesse James is looking a good bit like the longtime Pittsburgh star, but few will ever been in Miller’s league as an all-around tight end — and James was just a fifth-round pick. The expectation was that James would take over for Miller, not perfectly fill the void.

As insurance, the team picked up free agent Ladarius Green, who had spent his entire career through 2015 as the backup to all-world tight end Antonio Gates of the Chargers. The insurance policy, however, now likely needs one of his own.

It’s not going to be Xavier Grimble. Despite some flashes, Grimble was inconsistent in 2016 and, like James, was never considered to be on Green’s level. Green was destined to be the star of this group.

Until injuries — including multiple concussions — derailed his season before it even got started.

In the end, Green only appeared in a handful of games and, despite a breakout game against the New York Giants, never ended up being the game changer he was slated to be.

If ever there was a year to grab some tight-end insurance, 2017 is it.

A quick glance shows there could be as many as 15 tight ends who could be gone by the end of the fourth round. Impressive, considering there were fewer than 15 taken in the entirety of four of the last six drafts.

There’s a tight end out there for every scheme, too: from 6’-2”, 225-lb. Gerald Everrett from South Alabama to USC’s 6’-6”, 265-pound monster, Taylor McNamara.

From the Steelers’ perspective, though, I’d be looking to the top end of the group. That’s because the guys who most mirror Green’s skill set are found there. Evan Engram of Ole Miss, David Njoku of Miami, Alabama’s O.J. Howard, Clemson’s Jordan Leggett and Bucky Hodges from Virginia Tech are the guys who leap off the screen at you, each for slightly varying reasons, and each has his own negatives, as well.

Howard is a great, all-around option. Alabama’s option offense used him a lot as a blocker and on short routes, and he excelled everywhere. Njoku is as good of a receiving tight end as you will find, but is strong enough and willing enough to block at the next level if he just adds some upper-body mass. Leggett is a gliding runner like Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant, and uses his body well to box out defenders, but doesn’t seem to put his heart into run blocking. And Hodges is an absolute jack of all trades — not to mention the tallest of the bunch — who catches, takes handoffs, and blocks like he’s mad at someone.

But, if I was going to target someone, it would be Engram, even though he is the smallest of the entire group. He’s a very good blocker, and he doesn’t quit until the whistle. He can run any route well, catches with his hands away from his body, and he’s very fluid in the open field. The biggest negative for him is his size, but he plays bigger than he is. If he’s available at the end of the first round, I would give him strong consideration. If he’s available at the end of the second round, I’d be waiting in line with the draft card at the podium for the Packers to finish announcing their pick.

The reality, though, is it would be hard to go wrong with any of these five, especially if they are available in the second or even the third round. Each of them could be early contributors.

And, given Green’s recent history, each of them would provide strong insurance for a guy whose future with the team — the league, even — is still very much up in the air.