We have all known for years, surely, that the end of an era would come. We could see it on the horizon: Heath Miller would retire, and the Pittsburgh Steelers would move on without him, more likely for worse than for better. Of course, now that era is upon us, sooner than many of us expected.
But there is, at least, a bridge to help cross the gap from one era to the next—not from Heath Miller to Heath Miller’s successor, but simply from Heath Miller to not Heath Miller. And I have no doubt that the front office had that in mind with their scouring of the tight end position over the past couple of years.
The Steelers wanted to bring in a young tight end who was a viable candidate to be a long-time contributor on some kind of capacity, and perhaps they have found that in Jesse James, their 2015 fifth-round draft choice out of Penn State.
James had an encouraging rookie season once he actually got on the field, spending the early portions of the season on the inactive list. But he got his first action to open the second half of the season and had what is probably still the best game of his very young career, catching two passes, one for a touchdown, and throwing a couple of key blocks along the way.
All told, the true junior prospect gained some valuable experience in 2015, catching a total of eight passes for 56 yards and a touchdown to go along with a reception for a two-point conversion. He played some important snaps down the stretch, even at times serving as the second tight end.
But the most important lessons that he learned no doubt came off the field, guided by the wisdom of the man who had already done it for a decade, a former first-round pick and Pro Bowl player at the position, Heath Miller.
Still just 21—James won’t turn 22 until June—the rookie certainly had a lot to gain working under Miller and learning his trade secrets, not just in terms of technique, but in terms of being a professional. All the talent in the world can’t teach you how to be a professional football player, which requires a level of dedication that is absent at lower levels of play.
While this is pure speculation on my part, I might wonder if at least a small part of Miller felt as though he could retire now because he believed the Steelers were in good hands with James, given how he saw the young man develop over the course of the year.
But whether or not there is any truth to that or not—and I again hasten to add that it is mere speculation—there can be no doubt that he will come back in his second season a better player for having had Miller by his side through his earliest growing pains in the league. And, of course, there is still plenty for him to learn from Matt Spaeth.