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Steelers still searching for that field-stretching tight end

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Following Ladarius Green’s release on Thursday due to a failed physical, the Steelers are again in-search of that physically gifted tight end who creates match-up problems for opposing defenses.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

It seems every team has one.

Whether it’s a Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham or now Travis Kelce, you don’t have to look very long these days before spotting a tall and athletically gifted tight end that creates match-up problems for opposing defenses.

The Steelers are certainly no strangers to these kinds of tight ends, at least their defense that has traditionally had a hard time matching up with them isn’t, that is.

On the offensive side of the ball, Pittsburgh has never truly had that special blend of size (a nightmare for opposing defensive backs to try and cover and/or tackle) and speed (why would you even try to match him up with a linebacker in space)?

Oh sure, the Steelers have flirted with those types of players in recent years.

Remember Wesley Saunders, who came to Pittsburgh as an undrafted free-agent in 2011? He was a project, but one whose size (6-5, 260 lbs) and athleticism drew Isaac Redman-like praise from many Steelers fans. Just a year removed from watching the secondary get abused by the then mostly-unknown Gronkowski in a Sunday night loss to the Patriots in November of 2010, Saunders seemed to have the potential to emerge as one of those hybrid tight ends who could stretch the field.

Never happened.

Saunders lasted just two years in Pittsburgh and another few in Indianapolis. Today, his biggest claim to fame was serving two lengthy suspensions for violating the NFL’s policy on Performance Enhancing Drugs.

In subsequent years, the Steelers were linked to many tight end draft prospects, including Tyler Eifert and Eric Ebron.

All the while, the veteran Heath Miller remained at the top of the depth chart. Though not equipped with the same skill-set as the new wave of NFL tight ends, Miller was dependable and statistically speaking, the very best at his position in franchise history (592 receptions for 6,569 yards).

When Miller suddenly retired after 11 years following the 2015 season, the question became, who would fill such a massive void?

But not long after Miller made his career-ending decision, the Steelers made big news by inking former Chargers tight end Ladarius Green to a four-year, $20 million contract in March of 2016.

With great size (6-6, 240 lbs) and speed (4.5 in the 40), Green, then just 25, not only appeared to be a more than adequate replacement for Miller, but the answer to finding the nightmare of a match-up the Steelers had been on the wrong side of for so many years.

Coming off ankle surgery, it was understood that Green would miss some offseason activities. Unfortunately, he missed them all and was ultimately placed on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list by the start of the regular season.

Surely by now, you know about the story NFL.com reporter Aditi Kinkhabwala published last August, which speculated that Green’s real physical problems may have been due to recurring headaches from multiple concussions he sustained during his time in San Diego.

Everyone involved seemed to give conflicting and vague answers (it was either the ankle or the headaches, depending on what article you read and who was quoted), but the reality was that Green didn’t make his 2016 debut until mid-November against the Cowboys.

Almost immediately, however, Green started showing glimpses of the kind of weapon he could be in Pittsburgh’s offense. Unfortunately, after catching 18 passes for 304 yards and a touchdown over a six-game span, Green was lost for what turned out to be the rest of the regular season and the entire postseason after sustaining another concussion against the Bengals on December 18.

Had Green been around for the playoffs, he may have made up for a receiving corps that was decimated by a suspension and multiple injuries.

But while he wasn’t around for the end of 2016, there seemed to be enough optimism Green would be back for 2017 that the thought of taking a tight end high in the recent draft seemed ludicrous to some, even if Miami’s David Njoku was often cited as a possible option with the 30th pick of Round 1.

Of course, Njoku went just before the Steelers turn, and they ultimately didn’t select a tight end with any of their eight selections.

Fast-forward to Thursday and the release of Green following a failed physical.

Now what?

Obviously, Jesse James, a 2015 fifth round pick out of Penn State, sits atop the depth chart, and is followed by David Johnson, Xavier Grimble and a couple of UDFA’s.

While James has shown promise over his first two years; and Grimble, a 2014 UDFA of USC who spent time on several practice squads before finally catching on with the Steelers, showed a flash or two in 2016, neither appears to have what it takes to truly evolve into that match-up nightmare the team has coveted at the tight end position for far too long.

Regarding the Green fiasco, you can place blame at the feet of the Steelers for not vetting his physical ailments properly. Or if you want, you can point the finger at the player for not being truthful.

As for me, I just researched the Steelers 2017 regular season schedule, and I see they must prepare for Gronkowski, Kelce, and yes, maybe even Njoku, who the Browns traded back into the first round to draft at 29.

Yep, it seems like every team has one, that athletically gifted tight end who creates very tangible match-up problems for opposing defenses.

Every team except the Steelers, that is.

The search continues.