Normally we have to wait until the season begins for the Pittsburgh Steelers to begin taking injury losses, but yesterday’s release of Ladarius Green accelerated that timeline after the athletically gifted tight end failed his physical.
Green has a history of concussions throughout his career, and several sources expressed concern to me back when Pittsburgh originally signed him that he didn’t have much football left in him. Turns out they were right, as Green appeared in just six games as a Steeler, after injuries got his season off to a late start and then cut it short again in Week 15.
When the Steelers signed Green, the intention was to create a flex mismatch option to add to an already dangerous receiving corps. That hasn’t been the Steelers' traditional mode at the position at any point in their history, but Green’s presence promised to usher in a new era, one that coincided appropriately with the NFL’s shift toward tight ends as offensive weapons rather than exclusive in-line blockers.
The Steelers obviously bungled the signing of Green, given his health concerns, but on the surface their idea was a good one. Players such as Green are unique in that they force defenses to make tough decisions with their personnel options. Put the tight end in-line in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) and the opposing defensive coordinator has to decide whether to match him with a defensive back or a linebacker. The vast majority of linebackers would get toasted by Green in coverage, while most defensive backs would lose one-on-one battles with Green as a blocker.
Granted, Green was never going to be more than functional in his role as a blocker, but the illusion of his presence in the run game could have created advantageous opportunities for the Steelers offense to get strong run defenders off the field or less speed and athleticism on it. By discovering how defenses tended to guard Green, the Steelers could alter playcalling as the game went on to take advantage of mismatches.
To be honest, though, Green was far from the perfect tight end, even for his “big wide receiver”-like role. His route-running never really developed, and he rarely played to his 6-6, 240-pound size in traffic or in contested catch situations. Green wasn’t as physically dominant as a receiver or blocker than his frame would suggest, but in the six games he did appear in, his impact was plainly felt.
Six games, 18 catches, 304 yards and a score. Those are Green’s numbers from this past season. His 17 yards per catch was an insane average for any position let alone a tight end. Green’s seven 20+ yard grabs in such a short period showcased his big play ability due to speed and explosiveness. Projecting his numbers over a 16-game season leads to 48 catches for 811 yards, the exact low-volume, high-impact combination for which Pittsburgh hoped when they acquired Green.
But availability is a key quality, and Green has never been consistently that in his career. Now the Steelers are left with the unenviable task of trying to salvage a replacement out of the average/below-average talent that currently makes up their tight end group.
Jesse James is developing into an adequate in-line presence, but he doesn’t give Pittsburgh any mismatch potential, as most linebackers can easily mirror him in space or carry the big tight end down the seam. But James will now have to play a heavy snap count and must show he’s at least improved at winning contested catches in tight coverage to make an impact in the passing game.
Xavier Grimble was my camp sleeper last year at this time, and he played well when called upon last season. No one will mistake his lumbering 4.9 speed for Green’s 4.5, and Grimble doesn't play to his body-builder frame as a run blocker, either. He’s a couple-snaps-a-game type of tight end, offering a little more versatility than David Johnson does as a blocker-only option, but not enough to cause defenses much concern.
Green’s loss limits the Steelers passing game diversity significantly. None of their current options are downfield threats, and all will struggle to separate against man coverage, even from linebackers. The position simply cannot be counted on for production in the passing game, and it will make the team easier to scheme against for opposing defensive personnel packages.
I would expect to see bit heavier usage of 10 personnel packages with four wide receivers. JuJu Smith-Schuster was a strong blocker in college, and could be a mismatch option as a big slot if teams choose to match him with a smaller corner. That’s a band-aid for a bullet hole, however, as teams will soon catch on and adjust the way they match up without a big-bodied tight end to worry about.
Obviously the Steelers still have a ridiculous wealth of talent at other offensive skill positions, so the unit will still be explosive with Ben Roethlisberger at the helm. This is a blow to the creativity Todd Haley would love to deploy in his unit, but the group as a whole remains dangerous. It’s extremely questionable why the team did not spend a draft pick on a tight end in this past draft class, knowing that Green would be unavailable, but I’d expect that the position will be among the team’s top priorities next offseason.