For many fans, the thinnest position heading into training camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers is at tight end. A perfect storm could be brewing because of the players who on the team’s depth chart. Starter Vance McDonald has been injury plagued throughout his career, Xavier Grimble has 22 receptions during his four-year career and one giant boneheaded play. Zach Gentry was selected in the fifth round despite a myriad of question marks that ranges from his athleticism to his dropping of passes. While the concerns about the three players listed above are valid, the other three tight ends on the roster make those concerns pale in comparison.
Veteran McDonald set career highs in targets, receptions, yards, and tied career highs in both games played and touchdowns. With the departure of Jesse James, could McDonald be inline for increased snaps over his 50 percent from 2018? That will depend on his level of health in 2019. In two seasons with the Steelers, the former Rice Owl has taken part in 25 of 32 possible games. For his career his numbers are even lower — 73 of 96.
Grimble has flashed ability in his three seasons with the Steelers but only has 22 receptions over that span. Playing 174 snaps in 2018 garnered only six receptions. The former USC Trojans saw the biggest catch of his career turn into one of the biggest nightmares of his career against the Denver Broncos. Pittsburgh caught the Broncos defense off guard and dumped a short pass off to Grimble who rumbled to the goal line only to be trucked by Broncos safety Will Parks. Fans point out the myriad of mistakes that the four-year vet made on the play (Carrying the ball in the wrong hand, not wrapping up the football with two hands and not avoiding contact.) and wonder about his football IQ if asked to play numerous snaps in 2019.
Lock based upon draft position?
Gentry had a rough combine with a 4.9 forty time, 12 reps on the bench press and a 7.4 3-cone drill. The former Michigan Wolverines had a productive last two seasons at hauling in 49 receptions for 817 yards and four touchdowns. The 6’8, 265-pound tight end pound tight end needs to make bigger waves than what number he wears to catch the coaching staff’s attention.
The other three tight ends on the Steelers roster are two relative unknowns with limited college production and a former professional rugby player.
2019 undrafted rookie free agent Trevor Wood joined the Steelers after the NFL Draft hoping to land a spot in the NFL. Wood was asked to play defense in the Wildcats bowl game which might not have bode well for his senior year at Arizona, so he transferred to Texas A&M after graduation which meant he did not have to sit a season. His college career was nondescript with 11 catches while taking part in 17 games. The official Steelers roster has him also listed as a long snapper, could this versatility lead to a roster spot?
Kevin Rader has an offseason in the NFL as he spent the 2018 offseason with the Green Bay Packers. Unable to land a roster spot with the Packers or any other team, he spent the rest of the year out of the NFL. The 6’4, 240-pound tight end was signed early in January when the Steelers could expand their roster. The former Youngstown State product had limited production in college snaring 41 passes for 601 yards and four touchdowns. A 24.7 yards per reception his senior season is one reason that Rader is getting a second go around with an NFL team in 2019. The yards per reception is surprising with him running a 4.91 forty time at his pro day.
Turning 26 later this month, Christian Scotland-Williamson is the senior citizen of this group of three players. Twenty-six is not only considered old for a player still trying to make an NFL roster for the first time but old for a player who is better known in rugby than any level of American football.
Scotland-Williamson was awarded to the Steelers through the International Pathway Program which aims to provide international athletes a pathway into the NFL while not counting against the 90 man roster or 10 man practice squad. Pittsburgh had nothing to lose by keeping the towering 6’9 Worcester Warriors on the practice squad for the season. Fast forward to 2019 and it is reported that he has lost 36 pounds which should put him around the 240 range. Will the weight loss allow him more looks than he saw in last seasons preseason where he only caught one pass?
With such limited and questionable depth at tight end, could the Steelers solicit a trade to boost a risky depth chart before training camp? Or does the team feel comfortable with the six players they have under contract? An injury to McDonald, ball security issues from Grimble, or Gentry struggling to make the transition to the NFL would open the door for Wood, Rader, or Scotland-Williamson to showcase their abilities. But can any of the three walk through that opening? This is a situation Steelers fans will hold their collective breaths during camp and preseason especially with the departure of James and AB and their productivity.