I don’t want to sound like a “Negative Nancy” right now, but the Steelers have a less than favorable situation on their hands at the tight end position.
Heath Miller has still not played a snap since he sustained a brutal knee injury last December. Worst of all is the fact that the two-time “Pro Bowler” could very well be sidelined until midseason. Matt Spaeth, who the Steelers re-signed to start in Miller’s absence, will probably miss more regular season games than Miller while he spends the next two months recovering from Lisfranc (foot) surgery.
With Miller and Spaeth expected to ride the pine, Pittsburgh’s offense will now have to look to David Paulson to pick up the slack during the first half of the 2013 regular season.
Last season, Paulson surprised many when he climbed up the Steelers’ depth chart and finished the season as the team’s primary backup behind Miller. While Paulson’s stats were not particularly impressive (seven catches for 51 yards), he still managed to make the roster and gained a significant amount of playing time as a rookie (16 games with five starts) after he jumped over Weslye Saunders and Leonard Pope in Pittsburgh’s tight end pecking order.
With Miller out sidelined, Paulson will have to at least find ways to contribute in the passing game. Luckily for the Steelers, the former Oregon Duck received extensive work at the collegiate level in that particular department. During his final two seasons with the Ducks, the tight end recorded 55 catches for 856 yards and 10 touchdowns. As a mobile “H-back” type of target in Oregon’s fast-break offense, Paulson was a threat as an in-line receiver and even in the slot.
Although I do not expect Paulson to come anywhere close to replacing Miller in the statistical aggregate (particularly in the red zone), his athleticism and hands should make him a viable enough weapon to at least make him a non-liability in Pittsburgh’s passing game.
What worries me the most about Paulson though is his overall size (6’4″ 246 lbs.) and the question of how well he can hold up at the point of attack when the Steelers decide to run the ball. Miller is one of the best blockers among starting tight ends at the professional level, and the large-framed Spaeth has been a “TE (Tackle Eligible)” for most of his professional career.
How well Paulson performs as a run-blocker, particularly when he is in-line and facing defensive linemen who could outweigh him by 40+ lbs., remains a big mystery. The Steelers don’t need Paulson to be Miller or Spaeth as a blocker just yet, but their anemic ground attack must find ways to improve and the tight end’s play will be most critical.
Concerns and questions aside, Paulson has a window of opportunity to become a long-term option for the Steelers at tight end with the veterans in front of him out of the lineup for significant chunks of this season. Pittsburgh’s depth chart includes the likes of Peter Tuitupou, Michael Palmer, Jamie McCoy, and Nathan Overbay behind the second-year tight end. Thus, Paulson now has his best chance take control of the starting job and solidify a spot for himself on the roster.
I for one hope that Paulson can take advantage of this tremendous chance to emerge a legitimate threat in Pittsburgh’s offense. The current contracts of Spaeth and Miller are set to expire after the 2014 season, and I am sure that the Steelers’ brass would love to have an “insurance policy” like Paulson step up sooner as opposed to later.
Otherwise, the Steelers could be looking for a tight end early in the 2014 NFL Draft.
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