Towering Zach Gentry gives Steelers clarity in tight end pecking order
A familiar scene unfolded in the third quarter Saturday night at Heinz Field.
The Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback scrambled around in the pocket, searching for a target in the back of the end zone. He let loose a high throw, and the tall, lanky tight end wearing a No. 81 jersey leaped high in the air before coming down with the ball for a 3-yard touchdown.
The big difference in the preseason opener wasn’t Mason Rudolph throwing the pass as much as it was Zach Gentry — and not Jesse James — catching it in the Steelers’ 30-28 victory against Tampa Bay.
With James being lured to the Detroit Lions by a four-year, $22.6 million contract in free agency, the Steelers face a literal tall order in replacing the 6-foot-7 tight end. For the first time in five seasons, another player besides James is wearing No. 81.
After Heath Miller retired following the 2015 season, James slowly emerged as the team’s most available tight end. Despite being viewed as a backup by management, James led all Steelers tight ends in snaps in the 2016-17 seasons, and he played only two fewer snaps than Vance McDonald last year. James also had 120 catches and nine touchdowns in his four seasons with the Steelers.
“Jesse was always there,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. “One thing about Jesse was he was durable. You could never deny the idea that Jesse was durable, that he was here, that he was prepared and knowledgeable of what he was supposed to do.”
And so it is that over the course of the preseason, the Steelers not only will be trying to replace James as the top backup, they’re looking for a third tight end as well.
Xavier Grimble, entering his fourth full season with the Steelers, has been tasked with moving up the depth chart from his former No. 3 spot. Grimble, who turns 27 in September, has the size (6-4, 261 pounds) and is a capable blocker, but he is an inexperienced receiver (22 career catches) and has never logged more than 197 snaps a season. That equates to about 12 plays per game.
“I’m hoping he can (be the No. 2),” tight ends coach James Daniel said. “That’s my job. I’m supposed to coach him. He’s been working hard. He know that the bar is set for him, and he’s working to get it done.”
Fichtner also is interested to see whether Grimble can rise to the challenge. If he can’t, the Steelers will be on the market for a veteran tight end once rosters are trimmed after the final preseason game.
“If ‘X’ is just as consistent, he has some really innate talent that might show up and people might say, ‘Wow,’ ” Fichtner said. “But he has to show it and only he can do that.”
Perhaps the person most capable of gauging Grimble’s development is McDonald. In 2014, when McDonald was in his second season with San Francisco, Grimble spent two stints on the 49ers practice squad. They were reunited with the Steelers late in the 2017 preseason.
“He has grown up,” McDonald said. “He was a silly little boy when he was in San Francisco as was I. He definitely has grown up and matured.”
Grimble spent this past offseason in Las Vegas working on his conditioning while preparing to take on a bigger work load.
“I’m ready to play,” he said. “I’m thankful to be here, grateful that I feel good. I’m in good health. I’m just ready to do my part.”
With coach Mike Tomlin resting nearly all of his starters, Grimble started and played 21 snaps in the first half before being rested. He was not targeted on any of the Steelers’ 30 pass attempts.
Finishing out the rest of the game were Gentry, the fifth-round pick from Michigan; first-year player Kevin Rader of Pine-Richland and Youngstown State; and rookie Trevor Wood, an undrafted free agent. Also on the roster is international player Christian Scotland-Williamson, who is likely ticketed for a second year on the practice squad.
Gentry was the most productive of the bunch, catching all three of his targets for 17 yards and that 3-yard touchdown reception from Rudolph that provided a 20-10 lead in the third quarter.
At 6-foot-8, Gentry is the tallest tight end on the roster, and the converted college quarterback used every inch of his frame to snag the touchdown in the back of the end zone.
“It definitely gives you more of an option,” Gentry said. “(Rudolph) probably felt more comfortable putting it high for me.”
Given the draft investment the Steelers made by taking Gentry, who like James was a fifth-round selection, he would seem to have the inside track on being the third tight end.
“It’s a daily progression,” Gentry said. “Obviously, they are not going to make any decisions until the preseason is completely done with, but I’m making sure I’m taking steps in that direction every day.”
The drawback on Gentry is his lack of experience at the position. He has played tight end for just three years.
“He’s big, but he’s raw,” Daniel said. “As far as things you ask a tight end to do in the NFL, I’m not sure in his background that he’s been exposed to that yet. He’s getting exposed to it now, and he’s responding OK to it, too.”
Rader, 25, spent training camp last season with Green Bay and signed a futures contract with the Steelers in January. In his Steelers debut, Rader logged a position-high 29 snaps and caught one of two targets for 10 yards. Trouble was, Rader fumbled after the catch with the Steelers trying to run out the clock with 2 minutes, 31 seconds remaining. Tampa Bay recovered, scored a touchdown with 10 seconds left and came within a 2-point conversion of tying the game.
Wood, a rookie from Texas A&M, did not catch his only target and played 11 snaps.
“I’m equally excited about the young tight ends, but they are all in growth and development,” Fichtner said. “I think we all realize that. Not to say any one of them couldn’t be a three or in a position to be a two, but X-man and Vance, they seem to be handling (those first two) positions OK.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .