Steelers: Dear Bengals, you’re the little brother
The Steelers have never had an offense this good but the rich get richer because they may have stumbled into a potentially dominant duo of tight ends in Ladarius Green and Jesse James.
The Steelers lost their best red zone weapon in Martavis Bryant but they could still have an improved red zone offense. They also lost the best tight end to ever wear the black and gold but they could still have improved tight end play. How is this possible? Because of Ladarius Green and Jesse James.
Let’s talk about how we got here. First, the Steelers, recognizing the age of Miller began looking for young tight ends. They used 7th round draft picks or UDFAs, but in the 2015 draft they aimed a little higher and got 5th round pick Jesse James out of nearby Penn State.
Jesse James came in as a big tight end. He’s 6’7″ and 261 lbs. He has a big frame and a long wingspan. His speed and quickness were decent, middle of the road. Where he stands out is in strength and jumping when we’re talking combine numbers. He also runs decent routes and has good hands, able to make the occasional great catch.
He was intended to potentially be the heir to Heath Miller. In 2015 he played 8 games with 2 starts. He caught 8 passes for 56 yards and a touchdown. Now I admit, I’m higher on James than most but there is good reason to have faith in his upside.
Obviously he was mentored by Heath Miller and has size for days and the hands to make it useful. But young Jesse James has been stunted by circumstances his entire time playing football. When you take a step back it appears he may have just scratched the surface of his potential.
First, consider his age. He just recently became old enough to buy alcohol (and as a PA native he knows he better do it before 10 pm). He only played 3 years in college and none with a red shirt. For an NFL veteran he’s as inexperienced as he can be.
Consider also the circumstances of his college career. He had good numbers. In only 3 years at Penn State he set a school record for the tight end position with 11 touchdown catches. He finished with 78 receptions and 1,005 yards as well. But that was despite all the wild circumstances surrounding him.
In his first year he was dealing with a new coach and the fall out from all the news around Penn State at the beginning of this decade. It was a learning experience for everyone there. Despite that he established himself as the best TE on the team as an 18 years old. There was also numerous distractions. In the next two years it did not get easier.
Before he left James would have to deal with growing influence of the sanctions against Penn State, reducing the talent he was surrounded by. He also got a new coach with a whole new offense in his last year as well. Finally, Penn State was uncharacteristically stacked at tight end and featured the likes of Allen Robinson at WR during his time so as good as he was the ball was spread around.
So here James is, finally in a steady environment where he can grow and have the same coaches track his progress and groom him to their needs. He’s had weights on his ankles and now they’re off.
But when Miller retired the Steelers were not 100% sure that James was 100% ready, so they signed Ladarius Green. Green could be a star in the steel city. Although he’s not a sure thing, this is the biggest free agent signing in a long time and he was meant to replace not just Heath Miller, but Martavis Bryant as well.
Green is a big, fast, athletic tight end with good hands and route running skills. When it comes to blocking he might not be Heath Miller but who is? And he is pretty solid. He played 4 years with the Chargers where he showed a lot but was always stuck behind Antonio Gates.
When the time came to pick who to give money to the Steelers lucked out. The Chargers stuck with Gates, an emotional move, an understandable one? But a smart one? I don’t write about the Chargers so that’s not my place to judge but Green has made some impressive stuff as the 2nd tight end of filling in for an injured Gates.
Last year during a stretch where Gates was injured, Green was turning heads. He finished with 429 yards and 4 touchdowns. He was drafted in the 4th round out of Louisiana-Lafayette. He came from a small school and like James was a high upside type of pick. He is 6’6″ and runs a 4.4 40-yard dash. Too big for a defensive back and too fast for a linebacker.
According to Pro Football Focus, “In 2013, Green had a 2.67 yards per route run, which was only bested by Rob Gronkowski that year. In 2014, it was down to 1.85, which was sixth-best for tight ends. His 2015 season wasn’t nearly as strong at 1.06, but among the tight ends available this free agency, he has shown the most potential to be a top-tier player.”
So the Steelers have two replacements for Heath Miller. If they both develop as the Steelers anticipated them doing the Steelers might be making room on the playbook for some two tight end sets. James has a little bit of size on Green but could reasonably be described as lumbering. But this is a tight end duo you couldn’t create better if you made them in a lab.
Ben Roethlisberger has been asking for a big red zone target since Plaxico Burress left the team. He might suddenly find himself looking at a red zone occupied by James and Green standing a foot taller than everyone else.
This could really turn into something. And with defenses rightfully focusing on Brown and Bell, they’ll have plenty of room to grow. With a mind like Haley’s and a quarterback like Ben, the sky could be the limit for this duo.
All stats via NFL.com