With the 30th pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers grabbed the most complete tight end in the draft class, and although fans didn’t know it yet, one of the most popular figures in team history. Equally as adept at sealing the edge blocking as he is going over the middle, every time he touches the ball, anyone within a 5-mile radius of Heinz Field can probably tell, as chants of “HEATHHHHHHHH” rain down.
While Rob Gronkowski or Antonio Gates caught the headlines for shattering receiving marks for a tight end, Heath Miller put on his hard hat and went to work, never once making headlines for off the field issues, media distractions, etc. Miller has more grabs for more yardage than any other active player at his position except the Cowboys’ Jason Witten and Antonio Gates of San Diego. His work ethic and soft spoken manner are beloved by many, including his teammates, and he exemplifies everything a Pittsburgh Steeler stands for.
Even this past season, when pretty much every statistical offensive category that matters fell, and panelists wanted to heap the accolades on Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, Heath took the same approach he always has-a “lunch pail” approach that doesn’t go unnoticed by his teammates. Every single season, teammates vote for that season’s MVP, and for a seasoned veteran like Roethlisberger, the choice is a no-brainer.
“I vote for Heath Miller every year,” he said, even calling him the greatest teammate of his career. “It’s more than just football,” Roethlisberger said. “Obviously, he’s the best all-around tight end that has played this game in a long time. That’s taking nothing away from Jason Witten or Antonio Gates or whoever else has done it. The things we ask him to do in the run game, taking double-teams, pulling, doing things like that, tight ends don’t do that nowadays. Tight ends are mostly either blockers or receivers. He does it all.”
Even amid talk that his play would begin to tail off, coupled with doubts of ever being the same player he was prior to his ACL tear, Miller posted over 60 catches and 700 yards for the third time, silencing the doubters. However, he can’t play forever, and many draft pundits think the upcoming 2015 draft would be a good place to find his long-term replacement. The consensus #1 tight end in the class is University of Minnesota’s Maxx Williams, an ultra-athletic player cut in the same mold of Miller. Although not the greatest blocker, he shows effort and grit, not letting up until the whistle blows. Coming from a pro-style offense, he does however have soft hands, good body control and the ability to make yards post-contact that makes him so unique.
If you happened to be watching the Citrus bowl where the Golden Gophers took on the University of Missouri, he was a human highlight reel, hurdling not one but two defenders on his way to the end zone and showing off the athleticism that will likely catapult him into Round 1 conversation. Often being compared to Jason Witten, what better way to pass the torch than to have him sit behind arguably the best all-around tight end in the game? Having NFL bloodlines never hurts either, as his father, Brian Williams, played center for the New York Giants for a decade. Although not as pressing of a need as say outside linebacker or cornerback, if Williams lights up the combine and his pro day, the Steelers’ brass may be tempted. The thought of going to double-tight formations with Miller and Williams would add just another headache to defensive coordinators, who already have their hands full with the rest of Pittsburgh’s skill players.
A sleeper at the position who could be had much later in the draft is Norfolk State’s Lynden Trail. A physical specimen standing nearly 6-foot-7 and 262 pounds, what is he? A former top blue chipper coming out of high school, Trail left Florida when Urban Meyer left town, and found himself at Norfolk State. 6-foot-7 and 262 pounds
“I don’t know if he’s an outside linebacker, a defensive end, or even a tight end, but I know everybody is intrigued by his size,” said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock.
It’s very possible that his best football could still be ahead of him. With Pittsburgh rolling the dice in the third round in 2014 on a scatback, one could be willing to bet whether they wouldn’t do the same if Trail was available in the later rounds? In his three seasons at the school, Trail posted 38 tackles-for-loss, 18.5 sacks, 8 forced fumbles and 2 interceptions from the outside linebacker position in their 3-4 base. He has size that simply can’t be taught, and coupled with his raw technique, could a switch to tight end be in the cards? His frame almost looks like that of a basketball player, and with the recent success of players who made the transition from the hardwood to the gridiron, anything is possible. One thing is certain, whoever and whenever the eventual replacement for Miller is found, they’ll have cavernous shoes to fill.
“He never complains about a thing,” Roethlisberger said. “I’ll be like, ‘Heath, were you open on that play?’ He’ll go, ‘Ah, it was close.’ Then, I’ll look at the picture, and there was no one around him. I’ve never seen him put his hand up that he was open or complain about anything. And he’s the first guy to go celebrate with the guy who scores the touchdown. He doesn’t care if he doesn’t catch any balls. If we win, that’s all that Heath Miller cares about. That’s what makes him special.”
That’s the definition of a Pittsburgh Steeler, through and through.