The Pittsburgh Steelers well underway with the offseason workouts at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, also referred to as the South Side Facility. We are already into the heart of the offseason, where hope springs eternal following a few months of pretty significant changes, in terms of both departures and arrivals.
How are the rookies performing? What about the players that the team signed in free agency? Who is missing time with injuries, and when are they going to be back? What are the coaches saying about what they are going to do this season that might be different from how it was a year ago?
These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked, though there is rarely a concrete answer, as I’ve learned in my years of doing this.
Question: How would you rank the top three tight ends in team history?
I’m going to do this one a little bit differently, for two reasons. One, I think it’s obvious that Heath Miller and Elbie Nickel are going to be included in and sufficient answer to this question. Two, I don’t think it’s clear in which order those two players will be placed. Great arguments can be made for both as the greatest tight end in Steelers history, but there is little doubt that, in whatever order, they are one and two.
Finally, I’m framing the question this way—ranking the top three tight ends—because I don’t think there’s a lot of great discussion to be had beyond Miller and Nickel. That’s not to say that the Steelers never had other good tight ends, but in contrast to other positions, they are not going to draw as much discussion or be remembered as easily.
So with that said, let’s name some of those other tight ends. And let’s start recent, just for the sake of it. Should Jesse James be included in this discussion? I think we can do a little better than that. Matt Spaeth? As a blocker, yes. As an all-around tight end, we can dig deeper, I think, as big a fan of his as I was.
There’s Mark Bruener, who is a Steelers scout now. Their first-round pick in 1995, he certainly didn’t put up the big receiving numbers—about 1200 in nine years in Pittsburgh—but he was a strong blocker, too.
The most popular answer I expect is going to be Eric Green, the first-round pick in 1990. He caught 198 passes for 2681 yards and 24 touchdowns in five seasons in Pittsburgh, including 942 yards in 1993, the team record for the position.
But let’s not forget about yet another first-round tight end, Bennie Cunningham back in 1976. In his 10-year career in Pittsburgh, he caught 202 passes for 2879 yards and 20 touchdowns. He was a great blocker and had a knack for the clutch catch. Sadly, he died last year.
Bonus question: what are the odds that Vance McDonald finishes as the third-greatest tight end in team history? He’s already entering his seventh season, but could play a more pivotal role in the passing game in 2019 than any tight end ever has in team history.