Steelers’ TE crowd thins after top 2 Vance McDonald, Xavier Grimble
Allowing Jesse James to leave via free agency, the conventional narrative goes, was an easy decision for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even if James was a starting-caliber NFL tight end, the Steelers already had one of those in Vance McDonald, and it would be a salary-cap faux pas to pay two tight ends more than $5 million annually apiece.
So the Steelers justifiably feel comfortable with McDonald as their No. 1 tight end. And the consensus is Xavier Grimble is a capable No. 2 after a three-year apprenticeship as the No. 3.
But what happens after that? The Steelers always have dressed three tight ends and many times use subpackages that utilize all three.
With James gone and Grimble playing a bigger role, where are the Steelers turning next?
“It’ll be fun to sort out, especially when we get to Latrobe, right?” McDonald said after an organized team activity session last month.
“Until then, I would encourage them to get into playbooks.”
July 25 is reporting day at Saint Vincent. Four men will arrive knowing they are in a competition for that No. 3 spot.
None has played a regular-season snap.
“They might be inexperienced, but they are a smart group of guys,” Grimble said. “They are picking stuff up well, they show up every day on time and they’re really picking up on all the information that we need to know, which is a lot.”
Calling the four tight ends after McDonald and Grimble “inexperienced” might be understating how raw the group is.
One, Christian Scotland-Williamson, is a rugby player who only has been involved seriously in American football for less than two years.
Another, Trevor Wood, was a “slash” tight end/long snapper who had 11 career catches in college before the Steelers signed him as an undrafted rookie in April.
Zach Gentry was a highly touted high school recruit just a few years ago — as a quarterback. Also a rookie, he has three years and 49 college catches worth of tight end experience.
Kevin Rader is by far the most experienced of the bunch: He played FBS ball at Youngstown State, where he caught 41 passes in 42 games, before spending training camp last season with the Green Bay Packers.
“We know there is definitely great opportunity and great competition in that room,” said Wood, who spent last season at Texas A&M as a graduate transfer after three seasons at Arizona.
“Everybody in that room is talented and smart, but you know that you’re being depended on when you’re in there, so you have to just do certain things. And when our number is called, you have to make the play.”
A huge wild card in the TE3 competition is Jaylen Samuels, who played the position at N.C. State but has been a running back for the Steelers. Samuels said last month he is happy to play tight end if asked.
Then there’s the large caveat: The winner might be … none of the above. Just two years ago, the Steelers were unsatisfied enough with their tight ends at the end of training camp they swung a trade for McDonald in late August.
As recently as May, ESPN reported the Steelers put in an unsuccessful waiver claim for former New York Jets tight end Jordan Leggett.
In other words, the Steelers might address tight end by bringing one from outside the organization.
But for the time being, at very least, it’s a training-camp battle in which the contenders are largely unknowns.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .