The Pittsburgh Steelers scoured the landscape for tight end prospects with some dedication this offseason as they begin to prepare for a future that includes the eventual necessity of replacing Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, two mainstays of this offense for the better part of the past decade.
Spaeth, of course, had a two-year detour in Chicago, but has re-established himself as a key piece of the team’s offensive philosophy—particularly in the running game—over the course of the past two seasons.
But Miller will turn 33 during this season, and Spaeth will be turning 32. Each have two years remaining on their current contracts, including the 2015 season, and it’s too far on to predict how much tread will be on the tires beyond that point.
To that end, the Steelers were perseverant in finding a tight end during this draft process, a task made especially more difficult by the fact that the position is undergoing an evolution at the high school and college levels that limits the number of candidates that are capable of being the ‘Y’, in-line blocking tight end that the team values.
Pittsburgh was fortunate to find one of the few tight ends in this class that they viewed to have that ability when they were able to select Penn State alumnus Jesse James in the fifth round, who declared a year early and whom the team views as a player that still has more to grow.
That is in skill set, of course, not in size, as the soon to be 21-year-old is already an imposing 6’7” in stature and tips the scales at 261 lbs. from a physical standpoint, he was one of the more NFL-ready prospects in the class.
But lest we forget, the Steelers do have another recent draft pick tight end in the system after they selected Rob Blanchflower in the seventh round. While Blanchflower is a bit shorter, listed at 6’4”, he has the mass, weighing in at 260 lbs.
During his rookie year, Blanchflower was limited during training camp and the preseason due to injury, and thus struggled to show off his abilities, but he offered some flashes of his talents as both a blocking tight end and as a receiver in the preseason finale.
While it was not enough to crack the 53-man roster—the Steelers opted to keep the journeyman tight end Michael Palmer for one more season, as he was a reliable special teams contributor, but they did not re-sign him this offseason—he did show the team enough to remain on the practice squad all year.
The Steelers have not traditionally kept four tight ends on the roster, barring some extenuating circumstances, such as in 2013 when Miller began the year still recovering from an ACL injury and Spaeth was sidelined with a foot fracture.
With the two veteran tight ends aging, and with no other prospects from a year ago in the pipeline—Will Johnson filled much of the third tight end duties—however, it would not be surprising if both James and Blanchflower do make the 53-man roster, particularly if James shows signs of this having come out earlier than necessary. Otherwise, the 2014 draft pick could well spend another year on the practice squad.