Ladarius Green Could Be a Matchup Nightmare in the Steelers' Offense

Pittsburgh isn't lacking playmakers on offense, but Green gives them another threat.

There’s been a Ladarius Green breakout brewing for the past three seasons.

The annual prognostication has yet to be fully realized, and now, if it does happen, it won’t come in San Diego. After it was reported Green would sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Wednesday afternoon, the team and the tight end came to terms later Wednesday night to bring Green to Pittsburgh.

Green also comes at a decent value for four-years and $20 million. At a $5 million average, that’s well below what other free agent tight ends have been making on the market, such as Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, who each cleared a $7 million average annual value. He’s also $1 million per year cheaper than Antonio Gates, who was ahead of Green on the depth chart for the Chargers, as the soon-to-be 36-year-old re-signed with the Chargers for two years.

Green also only received $4.75 million in guarantees, which would allow the Steelers to move on at almost any point in the deal without significant penalty should the pairing not work out.

Pittsburgh was down a tight end with the retirement of Heath Miller earlier in the offseason. In Miller’s replacement, they brought in a very different skillset but one that could make the Steelers’ offense the most dangerous matchup in the league for opposing defenses.

Taking the Lead

We’ve yet to get large doses of Green, even as his role was expected to expand each year in San Diego. He’s still very much an unproven commodity, but his size, speed and athleticism make him an intriguing player should he be given more opportunities.

And more opportunity is what he’s likely to be given now in Pittsburgh.

The one real glimpse of Green as a lead tight end option came at the start of the 2015 season when Gates was suspended for the first four games. During the three games Green played during Gates’ suspension, he totaled 14 receptions on 18 targets, 174 yards and 2 touchdowns, the second-best three game stretch of his career behind Weeks 10 through 12 in 2013.

During 2015's stretch, Green was also dealing with some concussion issues. He was listed as questionable on the team’s injury report in Weeks 1, 3 and 4 with a concussion and had to sit out the Week 3 game.

Due to Gates’ suspension, Green did get to see an increased amount of playing time over the course of the year and had the team lead in offensive snaps for a tight end at 56.7 percent. Green certainly wasn’t a top-tier tight end by our  Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, but even if he doesn’t improve on a per-target basis, he’ll have more value in the passing game than what the Steelers were getting in the last part of Heath Miller’s career.

NEP, for the uninitiated, measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data. Here's how the two tight ends in question fared last year.

2015 Rec Rec NEP Targets Target NEP Rec NEP/Target
Ladarius Green 37 38.81 63 20.76 0.62
Heath Miller 60 44.07 81 26.25 0.54

Miller clearly had a bigger role in the Steelers’ offense but was also aided with a bevy of other players on the offense the defense had to pay attention to stopping. Green, during this past season in San Diego, did not have those type of playmakers helping create mismatches for the defense, especially with injuries to Keenan Allen and Steve Johnson during the 2015 season.

What Green becomes now in Pittsburgh is another matchup nightmare for which the defense has to account.

Matchup Mayhem

Pittsburgh was the fourth-best offense in the league last season by Adjusted NEP per play, thanks to the seventh-ranked passing offense and fourth-ranked rushing offense. Green now joins an offense with the likes of Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton as the primary pass-catchers. There’s no guarantee Le'Veon Bell returns to his superhuman form after a knee injury, but he also poses quite a threat in the passing game.

In 2014, Bell was one of two running backs to be targeted 100-plus times in the passing game and more than doubled the other back’s (Matt Forte) Reception NEP per target, 0.61 to 0.28.

With this group of players, Green adds one more threat for a big play in an already efficient offense. Many defenses with have some trouble trying to defend all of Pittsburgh’s options in the passing game, even before considering Ben Roethlisberger as the player doing the passing. Roethlisberger was fifth among quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back last season.

While Green could be a seam threat in the Pittsburgh offense, much of his success this past season in San Diego came on in-breaking routes in the middle of the field. Take this play from the Week 1 game against the Detroit Lions. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Steelers running a similar type of play with Brown, Bryant and Wheaton lined up on one side, clearing that side of the field and leaving the middle wide open for a crossing tight end. (Video courtesy NFL Game Pass.)

Green’s ability to throw down that linebacker -- Stephen Tulloch here -- as he turns up the field is also a reason many swoon for the athleticism. He does still have the ability to win one-on-one matchups.

He can be deadly inside the red zone where he can also be an upgrade to what Miller produced last season. With 13 targets, Miller tied for the second-most targeted Steeler in the red zone with Martavis Bryant. While eight of Miller’s targets were caught, only two were for touchdowns.

Bryant’s red zone performance was much more volatile with only five receptions, but three were for touchdowns. Miller was worth just 0.59 Reception NEP per target inside the 20, while Green was worth 1.05 on eight targets in San Diego. Plays like this were a reason why:

Final Thoughts

There’s no guarantee Green completely breaks out and becomes one of the best all-round tight ends in the league. His blocking still needs work, and Jesse James will likely take over on more run-situation plays as the better blocking tight end. What the Steelers get, though, is a player who could help spread the defense out and create opportunities for not only himself but for the other receivers on the field. 

Even at his 2015 level of performance, he’d be an upgrade in the passing game from Heath Miller last season. If Green can take another step forward, the Steelers could be the most dangerous offense in the league. 

At an average of $5 million per year and just $4.75 guaranteed, Pittsburgh has the chance to come away with a steal on an instant upgrade and the potential for another uncoverable playmaker.