I think I was as surprised as anyone when the news dropped that the Steelers and tight end Ladarius Green have parted ways.
We have released TE Ladarius Green, and signed RB Terrell Watson.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) May 18, 2017
One year ago, a team who never dips their toe into the deep (read: expensive) end of the free agency pool, the Steelers acquisition of Green was a surprise in and of itself. The team has been patient with suspended and/or injured players over the last few years, so I figured they could give Green one more season to see how things play out.
Certainly, that’s how it looked when the Steelers passed on selecting a single tight end in the 2017 NFL draft. Giving Green a chance, combined with last year’s starter Jesse James and fill-in Xavier Grimble, it looked like the franchise was set at the position.
So why the change?
I’m of the opinion that the recent Steelers rookie camp changed some opinions on the future at the position. Consider some of the moves since last week, where the team had a chance to observe their draft picks, undrafted free agent signees, and a handful of camp invites hoping to make it in the NFL. Pittsburgh started moving names on and off of the roster after seeing these young players in action. Greg Warren was released in favor of rookie long snapper Colin Holba. One of the quarterbacks brought in as a “camp arm” was released in favor of another undrafted QB from Wisconsin, Bart Houston, who figures to also be a camp arm (but also shows the Steelers were unhappy with Nick Schuessler).
It was also noted that Mike Tomlin paid “close attention” to the rookie tight ends the first two days. Viewing the camp from this perspective, we can see a few potential replacements for Ladarius Green could’ve been on the field last week: Scott Orndoff and Phazahn Odom.
We’ve had nothing but high praise for Orndoff, even prior to Green’s release. The former Pitt tight end went undrafted but could be another gem the Steelers find outside of the usual process.
Orndoff’s numbers at Pitt weren’t spectacular, but his film shows the capability and willingness to block and make combat catches. He’s a tight end in the vein of Matt Spaeth, which is how he could make the final 53-man roster. Unlike Spaeth, Orndoff could be a much more capable pass catcher.
With Green’s release, Orndoff is one name to keep an eye on through camp and the preseason.
A 6′ 8″ 251 lbs. tight end walked into rookie camp on an invite and walked out with a contract. As a junior, Odom had 37 receptions for 492 yards and seven touchdowns at FCS school Fordham.
He has a large frame but figures to be more of a developmental player at this time. However, that’s not a bad thing. Xavier Grimble was signed to the practice squad initially before making the final 53-man roster last season. With a minimal investment, the Steelers could groom the former basketball player like other teams have done.
Phazahn Odom has literally all of the tools you want in a receiving tight end. He has the hands, size, speed, and the athleticism that NFL teams covet.
Also with a willingness to get his “hand dirty” and block defenders, Odom could have an outside shot at cracking the roster.
We already know who Grimble is, which is why I was more or less concerned with the Steelers depth chart.
Maybe, as has happened more often than I can count on fingers and toes, the coaching staff knows something we don’t. Often they’ll see players perform in practice in ways we can’t witness on game day.
Grimble had a few big moments in 2016, catching 11 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns. One of those touchdowns was Green-like on a similar seam route where Ladarius had scored his lone touchdown on the 2016 season.
I’m not going to go out on a limb and say Grimble is going to be as good as Green, but considering that Green wasn’t available often, just having the “X-Man” active on Sundays will be an improvement over the alternative.
Sure, I’ll put Jesse on this list. He was already Green’s replacement last season and is the default starter without question at this point.
James played the most offensive snaps of anyone not named Ben, Brown or Bell, or playing on the offensive line. That shows a confidence by the coaching staff going forward that “the Outlaw” can continue to be a quality starter and an outlet for Ben Roethlisberger.
He’s not the same kind of deep threat that Ladarius Green was, but the Steelers also have Martavis Bryant back and a slew of other wide receivers who could fill that role now. James’ spot is safe, and he stands alone as the starting tight end going forward.