One of the more reassuring parts of the Steelers offense over the last 5 years or so has been having Heath Miller at tight end. Even though he was injured in the next to last game of the season, Miller has his best year, numbers-wise. He had 813 receiving yards and 8 TDs. His unassuming personality and hard work ethic also helped make him popular with Steeler Nation. However, his knee injury last December, the subsequent surgery, and rehabilitation has left the Steelers with a question mark about whether he will be able to play by their first regular season game.
The Steelers are fairly mum about Miller’s status except to say he is progressing. No surprise there. Mike Tomlin has never supported speculation and he is normally tight-lipped about details that could feed it. Miller has remained upbeat when talking to the media but also acknowledges the dangers of returning too soon. All this leads to a question mark as to who will be the starting tight ends for the Steelers in September. Let’s look at the other five tight ends currently on the roster, starting with returning Steelers.
Johnson was drafted by the Steelers in 2009 after playing for Arkansas State for four seasons. He played for the Steelers from 2009 to 2011 but tore an ACL during the 2012 preseason and was placed on the Waived/Injured List. The Steelers resigned him in March 2013. Johnson played in all the regular season games in 2011, but his career reception numbers (18 receptions for 146 yards and one touchdown) don’t give us much to speculate on.
Paulson, technically, has the most recent Steeler experience. He was a rookie last year but he played in all 16 games, starting in five of them. Paulson didn’t get a lot of touches (7 receptions for 51 yards) so it is hard to evaluate him based off of what can probably be termed as typical rookie year for a Steeler. It wasn’t a ground breaking performance but he has a chance to show how much he has learned during training camp. I don’t think he is a definite starter at this point though.
Spaeth is a familiar face to Steeler Nation. He was drafted by the Steelers in the third round of the 2007 draft. He played for the Steelers through 2010 and then went to Chicago Bears. During his time in Chicago, his numbers declined sharply and I have no sense of whether it was lack of capability or lack of playing time. Even during his time in Pittsburgh, Spaeth does not have monster reception numbers and his ability to help the Steelers in the upcoming season remains a bit of a question mark. At the same time, I can’t recall thinking that Spaeth ever did anything detrimental to the Steelers so I’m left to wonder how much his numbers could or would change with consistent playing time. Obviously, Steelers management think there is something left to work with as Spaeth goes into his seventh season. Even so, following Heath Miller is a daunting task.
McCoy has played only one NFL regular season game, after he was activated to help plug the hole at tight end left by Heath Miller’s injury. However, there are no listed stats for McCoy from that win against Cleveland. In college, McCoy played with Texas A&M and signed with the St. Louis Rams in 2010 as an UDFA. He was signed to a futures/reserved contract with the Steelers for the 2011 season and spent 2011 and 2012 seasons on the Steelers practice squad until Miller’s injury. The Steelers resigned him to an off season contract in Jan 2013. However, his ability to play in the NFL remains unknown.
Tuitupou is the newest addition to the Steeler’s potential tight ends. He was recently signed as a rookie UDFA out of San Jose State after Zach Pianalto, another recent acquisition, was injured and placed on the Waived/Injured List. As with all the UDFA’s the jury is out on whether or not he will make the team and what kind of transition he will have to the NFL.
So, what’s the verdict?
Well, if the Steelers want a tight end who is a good receiver, they may need to look elsewhere if Heath Miller can’t start when the regular season begins. Johnson, Paulson, and Spaeth might be good receivers but their numbers don’t suggest it. To be fair, their numbers don’t suggest they aren’t getting touches due to lack of ball control. I suspect their numbers are low because, for the most part, Heath Miller has been ahead of them on the roster. Spaeth didn’t shine when he had a chance to step out from behind Miller while he was with the Bears, but I wasn’t following who was ahead of him on the roster there. Nothing from the OTAs or training camps suggest McCoy or Tuitupou are ready to jump into the offensive line and make an immediate impact.
How important is the tight end position to the Steelers game plan?
Well, the short answer is, I don’t know. However, looking at the trend with all the NFL teams, the tight end position is a key position in the offense and not just for blocking. Look at the trouble facing the Patriots with Gronkowski’s injuries and Hernandez’ release due to his murder charge. I’d say this is important. If you have an offense that has planned for a Heath Miller-type presence and now you don’t have it, what adjustments can you make? Heath Millers and Rob Gronkowski’s aren’t actually plentiful in the league. Tight end’s might be, but those very talented tight-ends aren’t.
I think the Steelers are going to find that if they don’t have Heath Miller back at 100% of what he was before his injury, their game plan is going to suffer. I’m not confident they have the right personnel to fill in, particularly since there are so many questions about the running game. I’m worried about the upcoming season, but I’m still hopeful that something positive will surface out of training camp. However, the Steelers may need to look around the league and see what other options are out there for tight end.