Does Heath Miller want to play football again? I ask because he could’ve stepped into a stadium Week 1 and probably had the same amount of yards as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ TE group did in 2019.
It’s been a long time, the pre-Miller era actually, since Pittsburgh has had so little production from the position. Vance McDonald, Nick Vannett, Zach Gentry, and Xavier Grimble (yes, he caught a pass, no, he didn’t fumble) totaled a paltry 409 yards receiving this year.
That’s the fewest yards from the position since Miller was taken in the 1st round of the 2005 draft and the sixth lowest of the Kevin Colbert era. Here’s how it stacks up to other years.
For comparison’s sake, in 2018, the tight end group combined for 1,119 yards. Meaning production decreased by roughly 2/3 this year. There’s plenty of ways to describe that. I’ll just call it “bad.”
If you’re wondering, those 2000-2004 ultra lean seasons were the days of Mark Bruener, Jerame Tuman, and Jay Riemersma soaking up most of the yards. It’s what led them to use a top pick on Miller, a byproduct of those terribly inefficient seasons where tight ends effectively served as another blocker and nothing more. Pittsburgh knew they needed an impact player.
Lack of production is likely to make the team turn back to the draft again. McDonald’s future is murky, Vannett is set to be a free agent (even if he comes back I’ll let out a heavy mehhh), and Gentry isn’t going to prevent the team from adding a high-pedigree talent. This year, unlike 00-04, there wasn’t even sufficient blocking to make up for the lack of yards. None of the tight ends blocked this well and it was one reason why the running game suffered for long stretches, handcuffing an offense that couldn’t throw the ball with Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges at quarterback.
Adding a tight end seems almost certain, especially if McDonald isn’t part of the 2020 plans, but drafting one has its share of short-term issues. It’s one of the hardest positions to transition to, thanks to college football’s system where most of those guys are glorified wideouts who don’t block or even line up in a three-point stance.
Since 2010, of the 146 tight ends drafted, 51 of which were taken in the top 100 picks, only nine of them have registered 500+ yards in their rookie season and only one – Evan Engram in 2017 – crossed the 600 yard threshold. Miller had a solid rookie year but then again, there aren’t too many guys like Heath out there.
It’s also difficult to expect any rookie to be a competent blocker unless they were that type of guy in college (think a Matt Spaeth type), in which case they probably aren’t helping a whole lot in the passing game. Point is, any new addition will help less than you’d hope in Year One.
The best help, of course, will be Ben Roethlisberger’s return. Hopefully then, McDonald will bounce back in some meaningful way, Gentry improve slightly, along with good health from JuJu Smith-Schuster, making the middle of the field an area this offense can actually utilize.