Cheers can be heard around the world today as the Steeler Nation finally gets a free agent signing to brag about. Well, ok, let’s not get crazy but Free Agent Tight End Leonard Pope is a solid addition to the Steelers and does add some depth and potentially eliminate some needs on draft day and beyond.
First, the official release according to Steelers.com, Pope was originally drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the third round (72nd overall) of the 2006 NFL Draft out of the University of Georgia. After spending his first three seasons in Arizona (2006-08), Pope played for the Kansas City Chiefs the past three years (2008-11). Pope has started 49-of-87 career games played, including 10 of 16 in 2011. Pope set career highs in receptions (24) and receiving yards (247) last season.
His full career stats are listed at the end of this article.
His ties to new offensive coordinator Todd Haley would seemingly have played a part in the signing. Any time a new coach is brought in it’s an excellent source for potential free agents to follow. If Haley didn’t think Pope could be a solid addition to his future offense in Pittsburgh, he wouldn’t have even come for a visit. At 6’6″, 250 lbs Pope’s size makes him an ideal target in the redzone, but then again Heath Miller also has the size and resume to be a threat in scoring position as well but has never been utilized to his full potential in that area. Perhaps with the dawn of the Todd Haley era we might see the Tight End be more of a focal point, but none of us should hold our breath. That’s a topic for another day anyway.
So who’s on the hotseat now for the Steelers? Heath Miller’s job is obviously safe so that leaves 2nd year undrafted free agent Weslye Saunders and David Johnson to battle it out with Pope. Even though Saunders is suspended for the first 4 games of the 2012 season, the Steelers can still afford too take a chance and keep him on the roster. In fact I think they absolutely should do so. The signing of Pope is as much insurance as it is wanting to have more competition at Tight End this offseason.
Saunders showed potential in training camp & preseason last year as well as in limited action during the regular season. The suspension for performance enhancing drugs wasn’t due to any willful misconduct on the part of Saunders but still the league and the Steelers don’t show mercy in these situations. It’s those reasons that give you optimism to think that the team still has faith in him to turn into a solid contributor for the future. He can still participate in offseason workouts as well as training camp and preseason but his suspension will start in week 1.
David Johnson obviously has the experience factor over Saunders, and the versatility to play Fullback as well. He was tendered as a restricted free agent and to date has not received any offers from other teams; he figures to be back for the time being at least. The team could carry all four players into training camp and then let them battle it out to see who wins in the end. Should the Steelers draft a Fullback coming up at the end of this month, that would be a clear sign that Johnson’s job is in serious trouble.
I like David Johnson, he filled needs for the Steelers at both blocking and as an outlet for Ben on quick passing plays. He wasn’t spectacular at either though and his production fell off as the season went along. The ability of Pope as both a blocker and receiver along with the potential of Saunders outweighs the known commodity they have in Johnson.
My money is on a final regular season trio of Miller, Pope, and Saunders. They could make it through the first 4 games of the season with just 2 active TE’s on the roster and then allow Saunders to work his way back into some playing time as the year goes on.