When the Steelers signed Leonard Pope to a contract during the offseason and then drafted David Paulson in the draft, I was pretty certain that David Johnson would be named the team’s fullback. He was… but then Mike Tomlin pulled a bit of the ol’ switcharoo when announced that Johnson would be back at playing his dual role as FB/TE. And, with that announcement brings even more uncertainty to an already crowded position for the Steelers.
The Steelers haven’t had a ‘real’ fullback since Dan Kreider in 2007. Underutilized with the arrival of Bruce Arians, Kreider was quickly dismissed and was picked up by the Rams and then finished his career in Arizona. David Johnson joined the team as a 7th rounder in 2009. Johnson quickly began playing a dual role as TE and FB. Seemingly a better blocker after getting a head of steam, Johnson appeared more comfortable in the FB position. In May of this year, the coaching staff said that Johnson would be playing fullback in the upcoming season. That was good news for Johnson, and I for one was excited for the change. I liked Johnson – quiet but a continually hard worker throughout the season – and did not want to see him fall victim to elimination by numbers.
It only took less than three months of a few OTA’s, mini-camps and two weeks of camp for Johnson to get moved back to the dual role. Ok so it’s not 100% official, but Tomlin said that Johnson would be taking significant reps at TE when the team returned from Philly. I don’t think this is ‘bad news’ for Johnson. I’m sure he’s been doing just fine at FB. I think what it really means is that this is code from Tomlin stating that he’s not happy with his other tight ends. Putting Johnson back at TE puts pressure on the others already there – would the team really carry 4 TE’s or more? Doubtful.
So who’s the one not stepping up? Heath Miller? Are you kidding? Newly acquired Leonard Pope? Suspended Wesley Saunders? Or is the rookie, David Paulson, out of Oregon already blowing it? My money is on the uncertainty of Saunders state of readiness when he returns from a four game suspension. He was an undrafted FA last season and had yet to really impress. He could be on a short leash when he returns. The team may be getting Johnson ready for the possibility of playing TE either until Saunders returns, or that Saunders absence becomes a permanent one. David Paulson is probably safe for at least this year until he can develop during his rookie season. Leonard doesn’t seem to be the right choice in this mix of ‘who’s it gonna be?’ because he’s come straight from Todd Haley’s system over in Kansas City.
I still believe that Johnson will ultimately get to play FB and only FB for the majority of the season. The Steelers, as in Steeler fashion, are just doing a bit of CYA in case they can’t get three strong TE’s within the first few weeks of the season.