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NFL breakout players 2018: Xavier Grimble is a double threat for the Steelers

Grimble could be an essential part of the Steelers offense this year.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a plethora of tight ends on their roster including probable starter Jesse James as well as former 49ers second-round pick Vance McDonald. One guy who may be floating under the radar, however, is Xavier Grimble, heading into his third season out of USC.

At 6’4 and 261 pounds, Grimble has been a third team guy for most of his first two seasons in the league. So far he has been used primarily as an extra blocker, somewhat of a thankless job for tight ends. They are expected to be able to take on defensive ends approaching 300 pounds head up on one play, then turn around and block an athletic linebacker or safety out in space the next. It is something Grimble has steadily improved at and it was a way for him to get in the game instead of watching all the action from the bench. To his credit, he really gets after people on run plays and tries to be a dominant blocker rather than just trying to get in the way.

Of course, that aggressiveness sometimes comes at a cost and gets Grimble into trouble by being over extended or off balance at the wrong time. For the most part, though, he gets the job done and he’s pretty relentless about it.

On top of his blocking prowess, Grimble has looked pretty decent as a pass catcher in limited opportunities as well. He only has 16 career catches to his name, but three of those went for touchdowns, a really nice ratio.

When given the chance, he has shown he has the speed and athleticism to get open, and pretty decent hands to boot.

Up until this point the biggest barrier to Grimble’s production has been his place on the depth chart. In his rookie season, Grimble was stuck behind James and David Johnson, who had been with the team since 2009. Last year after the Steelers cut Johnson, it was James and McDonald getting the majority of tight end reps. Now, after two years of him playing sparingly on passing downs, it’s time for the Steelers to see what Grimble can do as a receiver.

Pittsburgh has already shown they are comfortable lining him up wide or in the slot on occasions as a receiving threat. If he can show some consistency catching the football in traffic, Grimble could form a potent one-two punch with James in two tight end sets. The fact that Grimble is a good blocker means teams also won’t be able to assume it’s a run or pass when he’s in the game.

I understand that McDonald has potential, as anybody with eyes can see, but in five seasons he’s never played in all 16 regular season games in any given year. He’s never had over 30 receptions either, even in seasons where he was a starter. McDonald has already gone down with a foot injury early in training camp this year, so that should be the perfect opportunity for the Steelers to see what Grimble can do. After all, Grimble has a ton of potential, too.

With more opportunities and more targets, I believe Grimble could easily double his career numbers in receptions this season and become an integral part of the Steelers offense. Even if he’s still stuck behind McDonald, the odds are he will get his chance for more production at some point this year whenever McDonald misses time again.

Confidence level: Moderate