2012 Steelers Roster Position Highlight: Tight End

By Christopher DiMarino

The Pittsburgh Steelers are in a bit of a precarious situation regarding the tight end position. The 2012 season was big year for tight ends around the league. New records were set and the position saw heavy involvement in effective passing attacks. For the Steelers, it was a very average year for tight ends. The Steelers got a great player when they drafted Heath Miller. He is regarded as one of the best blocking tight ends in the league and has been extremely reliable when called upon. In fact when the Steelers need a first down, I now find myself following Miller since the workload of Hines Ward lessened. But many Steeler fans feel that Miller is underused in the passing game. By the end of the 2011 season, it seemed like every time Ben Roethlisberger dropped back, the ball ended up going to a downfield target. The tight end provides a big, intermediate target that can help move the chains, sustain long drives and attack the defense. The big question for both the draft and regular season remains to be, how Todd Haley and Mike Tomlin will use the tight ends to the Steelers advantage this season.

When it comes to 2012 roster projections, there is only one sure thing at tight end, Miller. He’s turning 30 this year and will be participating in his 8th season as a Steeler. He has only missed 2 regular season games during this time and is averaging around 40-45 catches each season. I would project that with the plethora of other options, he could end up with 500 yards and 5 touchdowns this season. The red zone is an area that he can help provide relief. The good news is that he has at least another 5 quality years left so tight end is not a huge position of need.

Though Miller is solid, the Steelers need a second tight end. Currently, Weslye Saunders and David Johnson are the Steelers other options. Saunders showed a little promise, but his suspension leaves him on the bubble. He only had 4 catches last season, and he had size/athleticism issues. At 6’5 and 270lbs, he’s got the frame of a blocking tight end, but the skills of a receiving type. A great sign would be if he showed up to camp a little lighter and running faster than before. But if he hopes to remain a Steeler, he will have to show progression as a run blocker.

Johnson is a tough cookie because he is a tweener type fullback/tight end. For this position, one would envision a tough, sturdier type of power blocker who has soft hands on short routes. However, Johnson doesn’t fit that bill. He is a little slow for a tight end and looks awkward when running routes. He is also an average at best as a blocker and too inconsistent. He’s been tendered so he will provide depth at camp, but I think the Steelers will look for an upgrade to push Johnson for the 53 man roster. The Steelers will also have the services of Jamie McCoy who was on the practice squad last season and he is in the same mold as Johnson. He may push him for the 53 man roster this year.

This tight end issue started last season when the Steelers lost Matt Spaeth to the Chicago Bears in free agency. The current cap position might have been why Spaeth was allowed to leave. He is a big (6’7) bodied tight end who has a decent set of hands, is an average receiving option and a good blocker. That is a great set of skills for a 2nd string tight end. If you compare stats, Johnson actually had the same numbers as what Spaeth was averaging. I think a lot of fans were just waiting for the Spaeth that absolutely killed it receiving wise in college to come out in the NFL.

I’ve posted about the tight end prospects in this draft and am currently going thru their combine results. Regardless of who’s in the draft, the Steelers likely won’t grab a tight end before the 5th round. I can back this guess up by looking at our head coach and offensive coordinator’s past few seasons.

Over the past 5 years Haley has been an offensive coordinator for 2 years in Arizona and a head coach in Kansas City for 3. The tight ends drafted on those teams were Ben Patrick in the 7th and Tony Moeaki in the 3rd round. Also consider that Moeaki was taken out of pure necessity. Tony Gonzalez left KC after 12 years in 2009 and they went all year without a replacement. Since Tomlin has been head coach, Spaeth was drafted in the 3rd and Johnson in the 7th round. In his defense, he has had Miller as a steady starter.

Following Miller’s stat sheet shows that the Steeler tight ends have been averaging around 550 yards and 6 touchdowns over the past 5 seasons. Having a solid starting quarterback and a successful offense may be ingredients in this product. Haley’s history with tight ends have not been as rosy. His best friend has been Leonard Pope, who followed him when he was hired by the Kansas City Chiefs. Pope was the leading tight end in 4 of those 5 seasons. Unfortunately, he never exceeded 300 yards and had only 1 touchdown in 3 of those seasons. And aside from Moeaki’s huge 2010 season (556 yards and 3 touchdowns) no other tight ends on those rosters had noteworthy years.

Below I’ve compiled the plays that the 3 Steeler tight ends participated in during the 2011 season.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 13 14 15 16 17 TOT AVG
Heath Miller 56 65 66 50 58 55 62 76 56 67 59 54 53 63 50 69 959 60
David Johnson 12 38 27 25 41 30 37 22 16 33 23 32 30 11 31 20 428 27
Weslye Saunders 4 17 14 8 20 12 27 11 8 15 13 23 13 4 14 17 220 14
2 TE Formation 8 25 15 21 19 19 12 13 9 18 16 16 17 9 17 14 248 16
3 TE Formation 4 14 9 6 19 11 24 10 8 15 9 18 10 3 13 11 184 12

As you can see, the backup tight ends were in on less than half of the plays on offense. These players typically get more time around either goal line. Unless several free agents (drafted or undrafted) come in and impress, I would believe that Johnson will be back as at least the 3rd tight end. Keep in mind that some of his reps were at fullback, which remains an area of need for the Steelers. So if they don’t feel Johnson and McCoy are sufficient, they may target another FB/TE hybrid. The fact that they signed back McCoy, who was on the practice squad last year, may mean they believe in him to be a competitor for the starting lineup this year. On a good note, Saunders played quite a bit early in the year. This shows that Tomlin and Bruce Arians weren’t afraid to put the rookie in early in his career as a Steeler.

Haley’s past performance as an offensive coordinator has one huge parallel with his current offense, multiple good receivers. And make no mistake; the Steelers offense in 2012 will heavily feature their impressive set of receivers. So to summarize: a good starting tight end, coach’s lack of focus on tight ends, low number of reps and great receivers are all reasons the Steelers won’t go out of their way to draft a big time tight end. This is great news for the 2012 draft class because there are few great options and many choices in the last few rounds. If the Steelers get some compensatory picks, they can use those or any of their other lower round picks on the deep later round projected tight end pool.

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