In the past two weeks, as the offseason heats up with the NFL Scouting Combine and upcoming 2018 NFL Draft, free agency, roster changes, cap casualties and draft needs have been a hot topic. Several sports outlets that focus on the Steelers were convinced that drafting a tight end was a must and mock drafts have followed that line of thought as well. I have been a vocal skeptic that tight end is an urgent need in the draft although the position has not been one of strength in the past couple of seasons. Recent activities have even convinced me that the Steelers may have already addressed improving the tight end position and will not make tight end a draft priority.
On February 19, Jeremy Fowler of ESPN shared the following:
GM Kevin Colbert seems eager to see what Joe Haden and Vance McDonald do w/ full Steelers calendar. "Having that type of player with us for whole offseason will only enhance their abilities to help us," said Colbert about the players acquired in late Aug.
— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) February 19, 2018
After the release of the statement, many of those sites mentioned above suddenly walked back their early insistence that Pittsburgh would target a tight end in the draft; some deleting Twitter posts of their own to reflect they're fully on board with what Colbert intimated. The covering of tracks didn't go unnoticed to my watchful eyes, however, as I was surprised so many were hitting the panic button on that particular position, to begin with.
If you read into Colbert's statement, it appears that Vance McDonald, who was brought in as a free agent during the 2017 season after disappointing results from Xavier Grimble, is sticking around Pittsburgh. McDonald wasn't an immediate upgrade to the offense due to injury but spent time while healing earning the trust of Ben Roethlisberger and working on chemistry. When he returned to the field of play, McDonald showed the type of playmaking ability that caught the attention of the Steelers' front office to begin with.
At 6-foot-4, 267 pounds, McDonald was a size and athleticism upgrade despite the six games he missed due to injury. In the playoffs, McDonald had his best game - 10 catches for 112 yards - against the Jacksonville Jaguars and finished the regular season (10 games) with 14 catches for 188 yards (13.4 average) and a touchdown.
Jesse James may not be the most athletic or speedy player on the offensive roster, but his third pro season was his best, statistically. James grabbed 43 receptions for 372 yards (8.7 average) and three touchdowns (not including the one Al Riveron reversed in a controversial call). James would benefit from McDonald's experience and is arguably the best choice over Grimble and Jake McGee.
Grimble and McGee have shown to be more effective as extra blockers and may be relegated to such in the future if both are retained for the 2018 season.
Roosevelt Nix, who was signed to a new four-year contract, eliminated the possibility that he'd become a restricted free agent and presents another angle. The former college defensive end signed a reserve/futures contract originally with the Steelers to play linebacker after being released by the Atlanta Falcons. In rookie minicamp, the Steelers moved Nix back to fullback and he helped provide extra blocking for Le'Veon Bell and showed he is able to score as well.
At 5-feet-11, 248 pounds, Nix seems an unlikely additional fix at tight end - but is it possible? Before you go crazy as a reader, let's look at the Steelers' roster. Antonio Brown is just 5-feet-10, 181 pounds. Eli Rogers is also 5-feet-10, 187 pounds. Roethlisberger doesn't seem to have an issue finding them in the mix. It may be a bit of a stretch to say Nix would be the typical tight end, but look at how the New England Patriots utilize Rex Burkhead (5-feet-10, 210 pounds) and Danny Amendola (5-feet-11, 190 pounds) in their offense. Granted, neither is tagged as a "tight end", but the Steelers could certainly take a page from their playbook in how they increase Nix' usage on offense.
Tight ends are the Swiss Army Knife of an offense. They pass block, run block, run routes and catch the football. A tight end essentially combines the responsibilities of a wide receiver, offensive lineman and fullback. When you're asked to do so much, there's a lot you need to know.
We know Nix can catch and rush. He earned a touchdown apiece in those categories during the 2017 season. With experience at defensive end, Nix has a better understanding than many tight ends on how to eliminate getting washed out of a play by a slick defensive move. He isn't afraid to get gritty when it comes to making a hard block, either. Whether the Steelers' new offensive coordinator, Randy Fichtner, will use Nix in such a manner is up in the air at this point.
With McDonald and James entrenched as TE 1 and 2, the signing of Nix (who is versatile), the tight end position is less of an immediate need. The Steelers currently have just six total draft picks and no compensatory picks as of the writing of this article. With the greatest needs at inside linebacker and safety, selecting a tight end looks less and less appealing than utilizing what the Steelers already have.
That isn't to say the Steelers may not take a good look at the tight ends in the Combine or even have a couple guys on the big board during the draft, but if they choose to fill that position, it will most likely be a late selection. The Steelers may be better suited bringing in undrafted rookie free agents to camp to compete with Grimble and McGee. Meanwhile, I stand by my instinct that Pittsburgh is confident they have the pieces they need in play already and will not make tight end a priority during the draft.