The Pittsburgh Steelers signed free agent tight end Leonard Pope on Tuesday and immediately most in Steeler Nation speculate that there is absolutely no way the Steelers will now consider drafting a tight end in the first round of the draft later this month. When you look at the odds from a distance and mix in the fact that Pope played for new offensive coordinator Todd Haley when both were with the Arizona Cardinals and Kansas City Chiefs, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that Pope is a lock already to make the 53 man roster and the Steelers are now set at tight end with Heath Miller, Weslye Saunders and Pope.
As I pointed out on Tuesday, Pope is anything but a safe bet to make the roster right now based on several factors. I also indicated that signing Pope this close to the draft means absolutely nothing heading into the draft this year as well. This is not the first time the Steelers have loaded up on tight ends just prior to draft only to draft a tight end in the first round. Anyone remember the month leading up to the 2005 draft?
The Steelers closed out the 2004 season with tight ends Jerame Tuman, Walter Rasby, and Matt Kranchick on the roster. They also had fullback Dan Kreider and h-back/tight end Matt Cushing as well on the roster. That following offseason Rasby and Cushing were free agents, but the Steelers signed them back in early April to one-year deals for the minimum that reportedly included $25,000 signing bonuses. The Steelers also signed free agent tight end Marco Battaglia that April for the minimum as well. That deal reportedly did not include a signing bonus.
So heading into the 2005 draft the Steelers had everyone back from 2004 plus they added Battaglia. At that time most everyone was convinced the Steelers would not draft a tight end in the first round as a result, even though Tuman was far from being considered a top notch starting tight end. The roster numbers just did not add up to it happening. There were even questions as to whether they would draft a tight end at all in the draft due to the numbers they had on the roster by the time draft day rolled around.
The Steelers of course went on to surprise several when they drafted Miller with the 30th overall pick of the first round. He was the highest rated tight end coming into the draft, but there were some medical concerns with him as well. Miller was coming off of hernia surgery that was performed at the first of that year. The hernia was not the only issue either as Miller reportedly also had arthroscopic surgery twice on one of his knees following his final college game. He was unable to workout at the combine as a result and this is likely what caused his stock to drop.
Following the 2005 draft, head coach Bill Cowher said in regards to drafting Miller, “It\’s pretty good to be sitting there at 30 and get the No. 1 guy on the board at his position.” You also have too keep in mind how much Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert loves value in drafts and the Miller pick speaks highly of that.
As I have spelled out in prior post, Miller still has plenty of tread left on his tires as he approaches 30 years of age, but behind him now sit Pope and Saunders, with the latter of the two scheduled to miss the first four games of the season due to suspension. The signing of Pope is nothing more than an insurance policy should the Steelers not find value at the tight end position at some point during the draft. The Steelers did the same thing in 2005 by signing Rasby, Cushing and Battaglia just prior to the draft. You never know how the draft is going to go, so you have to be prepared in case you are unable to find value. That is exactly why they signed Pope.
Now am I going to run out and bet the house that Coby Fleener is the pick if he is available at 24 when the Steelers pick? Absolutely not. You never know where higher value might present itself and where other players might fall. Each and every draft is its own animal. You never know who might trade up or down and how high one team might value one player over the another.
It is obvious that I view Fleener as first round talent and I find it ludicrous that several are ruling him out as the Steelers first round pick just because they signed Pope on Tuesday. Do you really think the Steelers are comfortable heading into 2012 with Miller, an unwanted free agent, a second year undrafted player facing suspension and a handful of h-backs? If you do, that is ludicrous unto itself. The need is there at the tight end position. It might not be as big of a need as others the Steelers have, but it is a need nonetheless.
It will be easy to point to all of these posts about Fleener after the fact, if indeed he is not the pick. The safest bet you could make would be against it happening based on the odds. More people are wrong with mocks than they are right as there is only one right answer for each and every selection. My main goal with this site has always been to look at things objectively and that is what I have been trying to do with Fleener. The Steelers pick at 24 could go in 24 or more different directions as the possibilities that coincide with needs are plentiful. Whether you like it or not, Fleener is one of those possibilities, just like Miller was in 2005.
If you are tired of the post about Fleener I suggest you read elsewhere for a couple of more weeks. After the draft you can come back and tell me how wrong I was to suggest he could be the pick should the Steelers pick someone else as it will be an easy target. However if Fleener is the pick, you can prepare for a few more post after the draft of me telling you how right I was that he should be considered an option.
There are still more than two weeks to go before the draft takes place and several things can happen between now and then. I am not 100% married to Fleener as being the pick just yet, but I certainly am courting the idea of it. My latest mock draft will reflect it later on this week.
Commence your griping below!