It may be one of the single largest concerns among Steelers’ fans for the 2019 season. Of course, keeping their Super Bowl winning quarterback on the field and healthy will always be the top priority in Pittsburgh. But aside from Ben Roethlisberger’s availability, the depth at the tight end position might be the largest need the Steelers consider addressing before the start of the regular season.
After losing Jesse James in free agency to the Detroit Lions this past offseason, the Steelers were left with often-injured Vance McDonald and a lot of question marks. Xavier Grimble was the third tight end in 2018, but a key drop against the Kansas City Chiefs and no targets against the Tennessee Titans has Steelers’ fans concerned over his ability to step into the number two role. The Steelers 2019 fifth round draft pick Zach Gentry caught a touchdown from Mason Rudolph in Week 1 of the preseason, but Gentry failed to play against the Chiefs due to injury and only had one catch in Week 3. Other than Christian Scotland-Williamson who has a roster exemption through the International Player Pathway Program, the Steelers only have undrafted free agents on their tight end depth chart.
So while the Steeler could very likely add another tight end, what does it mean for the 2019 season if they do not? Do the Steelers feel the players they have will get the job done? Do they have other plans with their personnel? As far as I can see, these are only two explanations as to why the Steelers would continue on without making a move at the tight end position.
They like what they’ve got
If the Steelers don’t think there is a player who is more deserving of a tight end roster spot in 2019 than the players on their preseason roster, it’s ludicrous to make a move. If the Steelers like Xavier Grimble and they don’t think Zach Gentry would clear waivers to be signed to the practice squad, then bringing in another player to ultimately be cut would serve no purpose. Perhaps the team still sees something in Grimble that many Steelers’ fans do not. While Grimble has put some solid performances on film, his fumble into the end zone in Denver last season is a play many Steelers’s fans are still not ready to forgive.
As for Gentry, his worst ability as of late has been his unavailability. Showing some promise by catching a touchdown in his first game, it’s difficult for rookies to develop when they are not on the field. In his return against the Titans, Gentry caught only one of his three targets, while one of the misfires ended in an interception.
As for Vance McDonald, he continues to be the Steelers number one option as long as he stays healthy.
If the Steelers don’t make a move for another tight end, one possible explanation is they like the players on their team better than anyone who is reasonably available.
The feel they have it covered
Another possible explanation as to why the Steelers would stay pat with the tight ends currently on their roster is because they have a plan in place to limit the need for a TE beyond Vance McDonald. While I believe the Steelers will still keep three tight ends on the final 53-man roster, there is a chance they could decide to only dress two of them. Instead, they could keep an additional wide receiver or offensive lineman active on game day.
When it comes to the passing game, having an extra receiver available could reduce the need for a third tight end for games. The Steelers ran 44 plays in 2018 where they utilized a three tight end formation. On 25 of those play they used the three tight ends on the roster, while for 19 plays they used an extra lineman at one of the positions. With less than two plays a game where the Steelers used all three tight ends at the same time, they could cover those types of plays using a different position.
The bottom line is the Steelers could decide they don’t need to regularly dress three tight ends on game day, If so, the injury concern becomes less of a factor as to having the personnel to fill out the active game-day roster. On the other hand, the quality of play from the position could be the major concern. If necessary, the Steelers could use more wide receiver heavy formations on passing downs while using an extra lineman or their fullback more often in the running game.
If the Steelers chose not to add to their tight end depth before the start of the 2019 regular season, I believe they will have a good reason behind the decision. Whether it be their belief in their current players or their personnel scheming to cover for any shortcomings, I will stick with the idea of the Steelers coaches and front office knowing more about the situation than the rest of us.
With that said, my reoccurring nightmare of Xavier Grimble lining up as the starting tight end in Week 1 against the Patriots coming to fruition will not give me a lot of confidence for the 2019 season.