Undeterred by an ankle injury that required January surgery, the Steelers signed Ladarius Green to a four-year, $20 million contract in March, representing a rare splash in the free-agent market for a perpetually cap-strapped franchise that had just lost long-time starting tight end Heath Miller to retirement. Finally freed from Antonio Gates’ shadow, Green is a phenomenal athlete who has already emerged as a popular 2016 breakout candidate in fantasy circles, with his recovery generally being viewed as a non-issue after he played through the ankle injury for much of last season.
Hold up just one second, though. The surgery was thought to be a relatively minor procedure, but Green cast doubt upon that assumption shortly after signing with Pittsburgh when he said he wouldn’t be ready until training camp. True to his word, he missed the entire offseason program, which would be less of a concern if not for the total lack of updates from Pittsburgh beat writers.
And while Green’s contract has been cited as evidence of the Steelers’ confidence in both his ability and availability, a closer look reveals that the team isn’t actually risking much by current standards, with the 26-year-old reportedly getting just $4.75 million guaranteed (all in his signing bonus) while carrying a measly $1.25 million 2016 base salary. It’s essentially a one-year, $6 million deal, with the Steelers then having the option to keep Green around at a $4.5 or $5 million base salary each of the next three seasons.
Looking at other tight end contracts from this past offseason, Green falls in the same class as Lance Kendricks, Ben Watson and Brent Celek, whereas Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen (hardly superstars) received north of $7 million per year with around 40 percent of the money guaranteed. Though he may have taken a slight discount for what appears to be an excellent situation in Pittsburgh, it’s still worrisome that the market valued Fleener and Allen so much more than Green, likely hinting at concerns regarding his ankle, concussion history and/or general durability. While somewhat obscured by the fact he played 27 of a possible 32 games, Green was hampered by a slew of injuries the past two years, including three reported concussions (though he now claims two were actually sinus issues).
All that being said, the persistent injury troubles can also be used as an argument for Green’s untapped upside, offering a much-needed explanation for both his lack of involvement in 2014 (23 targets) and his inefficiency in 2015 (6.8 YPT). There’s plenty of evidence for the latter, as Green caught 26 of 36 targets for 304 yards (8.4 YPT) and four touchdowns in the six games he played last season prior to hurting his ankle, even remaining somewhat productive when Antonio Gates returned from a four-game suspension. Green then slipped to a dreadful 4.7 YPT (on just 27 targets) over his final seven contests, before mercifully joining the rest of San Diego’s injury-depleted roster on IR ahead of Week 17.
While it’s perfectly fair to question his ability to get/stay healthy, Green deserves a pass for his inefficient finish to last season, having entered that seven-game stretch with a career 71-percent catch rate and 10.3 YPT, albeit on just 93 targets in 40 games. Throw in his 4.53 40 time from the 2012 Combine and you start to understand why there was so much anticipation for Green to eventually replace Gates in San Diego.
Green ultimately found an even better situation in Pittsburgh, where he joins a team with no other receiving threats at his position, and quite possibly no real competition for snaps. He could have an every-down role in an offense directed by Ben Roethlisberger, the NFL leader in passing yards per game the last two seasons. Now needing to replace Bryant’s 8.4 targets per game in addition to Miller’s 5.4, the Steelers didn’t make any other significant offseason additions at receiver or tight end, leaving Green as the lone newcomer of note.
And while the Pittsburgh offense may not be known for its TE production, Green is an entirely different beast from Miller, who still averaged 4+ catches and 5+ targets per game in each of his final four seasons, even as he lost whatever shred of explosiveness he once had. Miller’s lack of touchdowns might initially lead to questions about Green’s red-zone usage, but the slow-footed veteran actually drew 39 targets inside the 10-yard line over his last four seasons — he just wasn’t efficient with them and didn’t ever score from distance. Miller somehow scored only three of his 45 career touchdowns from outside the red zone — a stark contrast from Green, whose seven TDs for the Chargers each spanned at least 13 yards. In addition to remaining a big-play threat, Green should see much more goal-line work now that he’s on a team without other receiving threats at his position.
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The health situation still needs to be monitored, but if everything eventually checks out, Green has a tremendous ceiling that’s arguably topped by only Rob Gronkowski and Jordan Reed at tight end. Given that he probably won’t cost you a top-75 pick, Green is more than worth the gamble.