The Steelers’ Tight End Depth is a Free-For-All

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Heading into training camp, many of the Steelers starting positions are set and won’t involve any type of camp battles. Tight end is no exception to this. But just as many positions with depth that has yet to be set in stone, the depth behind starting tight end Jesse James is still very much in question.

During the 2016 NFL offseason, the Steelers made a splash by signing uber-athlete, vertical threat tight end Ladarius Green. On paper, Green possessed all of the traits that the Steelers would want in their big-play offense. Unfortunately, Green’s full potential will never be seen with the Steelers after multiple injuries derailed the young tight end’s time in Pittsburgh, leading to his release.

Jesse James showed plenty of progress as an all-around tight end during the 2016 season and figures to continue that development into 2017. While James doesn’t have the athletic traits that Green offered, he still is a huge target that will allow the Steelers to move the chains, similar to the type of impact that Heath Miller brought to the Black and Gold.

Behind James, things aren’t as cut and dry. As it stands currently, the players behind James are as follows:

  • David Johnson
  • Xavier Grimble
  • Scott Orndoff
  • Phazahn Odom

Each player listed brings a different set of skills to the table that could prove to be valuable to the Steelers offense.

David Johnson is the veteran of the group and, quite frankly, has the most secure spot on the roster of any of the tight ends on the roster not names Jesse James. Why? While he doesn’t offer much as a receiving threat, Johnson played a large role in Le’Veon Bell’s explosion last season. While Roosevelt Nix was one of the most underrated fullbacks in the NFL last season, Johnson served as the Steelers primary inline blocker, sometimes even when Jesse James was still on the field. His ability to seal the edge and quickly work up to the second level easily makes him the Steelers best blocking tight end on the roster. James is not far behind him blocking wise, but at this point it is safe to say that the Steelers will likely keep Johnson on the roster for the cheap amount that they signed him for until James can become a more refined blocker.

Xavier Grimble was the pleasant surprise of the Steelers tight end corps last season, showing flashes of playmaking ability that could lead to a more prominent role in the Steelers’ pass game this season. Grimble still has a long way to go as a blocker, but as we saw last season, the Steelers were not afraid to trot him out onto the field during two-tight end sets and send him down the seam. A perfect example of this came against the Steelers’ Christmas game against the Ravens when Grimble scored his first career touchdown by showing off great athleticism, speed, and decision-making. Grimble’s spot was far from secure before the Steelers released Green, but at this point, it appears that he will continue to be the Steelers #2 receiving option behind James. Although, his spot is still far from secure depending on what the Steelers see in their two undrafted free agents Scott Orndoff and Phazahn Odom.

Of the two, Scott Orndoff is almost the definition of a prototypical NFL tight end and might have the best chance at making the 53-man roster over Grimble if he performs well enough. At 6’5″, 253 lbs., Orndoff was asked to do it all while at Pitt, showing flashes as a receiver and as an inline blocker. While his yards per catch numbers at Pitt are unrealistic to replicate in the NFL due to the jump in talent and his athletic limits, he still has shown the ability to make difficult catches when needed and was a reliable route runner. When called upon, Orndoff was used as an inline blocker to lead the way for 3rd-round pick James Conner. But what really stands out to me about Orndoff is his resemblance to Steelers’ great Heath Miller in one important aspect of his game: Orndoff never shies away from taking a big blow from a defender down the field.Whenever he has the ball in his hands, he is not afraid to lower his shoulder and whenever he is evident that he is going to get laid out immediately following the reception, Orndoff hangs in there tough and makes the reception, sacrificing his body for the sake of the offense. That has “Steeler” written all over it. Orndoff has an uphill battle ahead of him to make the roster, but if you compare him to where Grimble was at this point last season, it appears that Orndoff has the leg up.

When looking at all of the tight ends on the Steelers roster, Phazahn Odom stands above all of them when it comes to pure physical traits. At 6’8″, 250 lbs., Odom is a huge target that has shown the ability to display athleticism all over the field with ridiculous length and strides. If would-be tacklers try to go low to tackle him, he easily does his best Le’Veon Bell impression and simply steps over them. If they try to go too high on him, it proves to be too little to bring him down. While his receiving capabilities have been noted, Odom is still an extremely raw blocker that often avoids big contact with defensive players in the run game. Odom compares to Xavier Grimble coming out of college: an athletic tight end in the pass game and an abysmal blocker. With Odom, the Steelers might be enticed with his potential in the pass game as a pass target which is a large reason why they brought him on board in the first place. Odom has a chance at making it onto the roster behind James if his ability as a receiver proves too valuable to stash away, but realistically, he is the biggest long-shot to make the roster.

When the dust settles and the season begins in September, it can be expected that Grimble and Johnson will see the most time at tight end behind James. With Johnson’s blocking abilities and Grimble’s athleticism as a receiver, the Steelers have some solid choices behind James’ all-around game. Orndoff and Odom will both have their chance to prove their worth, but the practice squad will likely be the landing spot for one, if not both, of them.

At the end of the day, though, we won’t see who is backing up James until Week 1 and it will be one of the closely watched battles of training camp.

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