Steelers tight ends Jesse James, Xavier Grimble ready to take reins
- Ex-Penn Stater Jesse James had 16 starts and 50 catches last season.
- James played in all but two snaps during the AFC title game last season.
- Xavier Grimble appeared in 12 games last season and had 11 catches.
It was only 15 months ago Ladarius Green was signed to a contract that sent a clear signal he was to be the centerpiece of the Steelers' tight end corps.
It was only a month ago the Steelers released Green.
And save for a couple of rookie undrafted free agents, the remainder of the team's tight end group stayed the same.
Jesse James: So, with their $20 million, dynamic top option now gone, what will change for the heir apparent as the Steelers' unquestioned No. 1 tight end?
“Nothing at all,” Jesse James said after an organized team activities session last month. “This is the same place I was at last year starting (last) season and the offseason. Nothing is going to change for me. I'm ready to go. All the tight ends are ready to go. We're all ready to step up and make the plays we're asked to make.”
The Steelers' uncharacteristic move of signing another team's unrestricted free agent to a four-year deal worth starter's money on the opening day of free agency — as they did with Green in March 2016 — showed the organization wasn't comfortable with handing over the reins of the tight end position to youngsters James and Xavier Grimble.
A year later, James has added 19 NFL games (including playoffs), 16 starts, 50 catches and three touchdowns to his professional resume. The product of South Allegheny and Penn State, now 23 and entering his third NFL season, is a much surer thing than he was as a 21-year-old rookie who played sparingly in 2015 behind Heath Miller. Miller's retirement in February 2016 led to the signing of Green.
“I feel (Grimble) and I are pretty similar in terms of how Ladarius would be used,” James said. “He does a really good job running the deeper routes and making big plays down the field. Hopefully, we see that a little more this year. He can do it all. He's gonna be a good player for us. We have a good group of tight ends.”
The 6-foot-7 James was a playmaker in college, and he has improved his blocking since being a fifth-round pick. He gradually became an important part of the offense last season: He played all but two of the Steelers' 69 offensive snaps during the AFC championship game.
Xavier Grimble: Grimble was the No. 1-ranked tight end in the country coming out of Bishop Gorman (Nev.) in 2010. His career at USC was underwhelming, though, and he went undrafted in 2014. After spending time on the practice squads of the San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots and Steelers his first two seasons, it was the offseason ankle injury to Green that likely opened up an opportunity for Grimble to make the Steelers' 53-man roster last season.
At 6-4 and 261 chiseled pounds, Grimble played about a quarter of the Steelers' offensive snaps during the 12 games he appeared in last season, making 11 catches with two touchdowns.
“My mentality is, ‘Easy to get here, hard to stay,' ” Grimble said. “So I am constantly focusing on improving and what I can do better, how can I enhance my game.
“Nothing changes for me (without Green around). Still the same guy, still trying to get better every day, still working hard. Just trying to see how good I can be.”
Other tight end option: Blocking specialist/H-back David Johnson is also back, and the Steelers signed Scott Orndoff (Seton-La Salle/Pitt) and Phazahn Odom as undrafted free agents.
Orndoff and Odom have potential to be part of the Steelers' future at tight end. But James and Grimble — along with complementary piece Johnson — are their present.
“They do a good job around here of getting guys in here who work and who fit in,” Grimble said. “(Tight ends coach James Daniel) is a big help to us.
“I feel like if we work and study our details and get ready and prepare like we are supposed to, we are just as good as anybody.”
Haley's take: Offensive coordinator Todd Haley said he was happy to have Johnson as “kind of a do-it-all guy” in addition to the two relatively inexperienced centerpieces of his tight ends group.
“Jesse will be a year better with lot of playing time last year. Xavier, same thing,” Haley said. “He's a guy who wasn't even sure he was going to make the team going into last year, made it and then contributed for us.
“They are young guys. Until you see them through that full third year, I think it should be expected there will be a great deal of improvement.”