When the Pittsburgh Steelers take the field for the first time this year, the offense will look a bit different in places, as will the defense, but the starkest contrast, at least on the former side of the ball, will come at the tight end position following the retirement of Heath Miller and the recent release of Matt Spaeth.
Miller, a 2005 first-round draft pick, had been one the Steelers’ foundational pieces on an offense that had gone to three Super Bowls and has steadily risen in recent years. He was the security blanket for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and an unselfish player who had the ability to put up All-Pro statistics if the offense allowed for it, but instead was content to put his nose into a defensive end from time to time.
Spaeth was a third-round draft pick in 2007, the inaugural Mike Tomlin class, and was one of three players remaining from that group before his release, leaving Lawrence Timmons and William Gay alone to represent that 10-year-old class.
In nine seasons, Spaeth served seven of them in Pittsburgh, including the past three seasons. He spent two years in Chicago after completing his rookie contract, but the Steelers quickly and happily re-signed him when he was released following the 2012 season.
For the majority of the past decade, Miller and Spaeth were the Steelers’ one-two punch at the tight end position, but now that combination is gone, and the Steelers have looked to replace them with new faces, and different styles of tight ends than the traditional cloth from which those veterans were cut.
While second-year tight end Jesse James might well grow to fit into that mold, the Steelers’ new top tight end, free agent signing Ladarius Green, is very much a departure from the Miller and Spaeth quintessentially Steelers-type tight end.
Somewhat of a glorified wide receiver, the 6’6” Green possesses elite speed for his position and is able to run vertical routes like few tight ends are able. It is no wonder that he spent nearly two thirds of his passing snaps lined up as a wide receiver, which is a stark departure from how Pittsburgh has utilized their tight ends.
Though we still have a great deal to learn about the young man, first-year tight end Xavier Grimble might give the appearance as a bit of a different breed of tight end from Miller and Spaeth as well, a more athletic body with purportedly flashy hands to make some ‘wow’ catches as a result of his physical assets.
The release of Spaeth opens the door wide open for him to make the 53-man roster and pair with Green and James, and perhaps veteran h-back David Johnson, in a new assemblage of tight ends for the Steelers, a group of players who combined have only eight games of playing experience with Roethlisberger in the past two seasons.
There may be a learning curve, but with the way the Steelers’ offense has been evolving in recent years, it may be a necessary and beneficial change.