With less than two weeks to go now until the Pittsburgh Steelers report to Latrobe for training camp, we continue on with our look at the training camp roster battles with our look at the tight end position.
The group of course is led by veteran Heath Miller, who figures to be involved more in the passing game this year. Behind him is Leonard Pope, Weslye Saunders, David Paulson and Jamie McCoy. David Johnson and Will Johnson are also tight end capable, but both are currently listed as fullbacks. We will have a look at both of them in an upcoming post.
At this stage of the offseason it appears that Pope is a lock to make the 53 man roster, but being as he was not on the team last year, we will include him in the breakdowns below.
Let\'s now have a look at the four players behind Miller on the Steelers tight end depth chart.
Leonard Pope - Pope was the Steelers lone higher profile dip into the free agency pool this past offseason. He played for new offensive coordinator Todd Haley at both Arizona and Kansas City, and was brought in to help bolster the depth at the tight end position with Saunders expected to miss the first four games due to a suspension. Through his first six years in the league, Pope has recorded 102 catches for 973 yards and 9 touchdowns. He has played in 87 regular season games and started 49 of them. When you break those numbers down he has averaged 1.2 receptions a game. While not a great route runner, Pope is able to get off the line of scrimmage generally well and is adept at both sitting down in soft areas and running down the seam occasionally. Those 102 receptions came via 153 targets, which is good for a 67% completion ratio. As a comparison, Miller has a 74% career completion ratio. Although many will try to tell you that Pope is a good run blocker, the truth is that he is below average. This is the main reason he was likely not pursued early on in free agency and why the Steelers were able to sign him so cheaply off of the street. What Pope does offer is an understanding of the offense that Haley is installing and thus he can help others on the offense learn it quickly. He is clearly only a reserve tight end to be used in two tight end formations and inside the red zone. His wide catching radius though could result in a few touchdowns this year as he is hard to miss at around 6 foot, 8 inches in height. When Saunders returns from his suspension, it will be interesting to see if he is able to retain his spot on the depth chart.
Weslye Saunders - Saunders, an undrafted free agent from last year, is scheduled to sit out the first four games of the season due to a suspension for reportedly testing positive for the drug Adderall. Saunders has appealed the suspension, but there has been no word yet on if it will be reduced or not. Saunders of course did not get the luxury of an offseason program as a rookie because of the lockout, but did manage to see the field for nearly 250 offensive snaps and he contributed on special teams in addition. Mostly used as a second and third tight end, Saunders was targeted only 7 times and registered just 4 catches for 29 yards and a touchdown as result. His blocking was adequate as a rookie and a year in the weight room along with a full offseason program should only help him get better in that area. Saunders will get to participate in the preseason and he needs to take advantage of every bit of playing time that he gets. He also must make sure that he stays in top notch condition and ready for action upon his return from the suspended list. He could wind up second on the depth chart upon his return.
David Paulson - Paulson was drafted in the seventh round by the Steelers this past April out of Oregon where he caught 67 balls for 1,041 yards and 10 touchdowns in 40 games played. At Oregon Paulson lined up in a variety of spots and that included on the line as well as split out wide. He is regarded as an average athlete, but gets off the line of scrimmage well. He is not fast by any means and is not the quickest out of his breaks either. He is raw as a pass catcher and needs to improve catching the ball with his hands and not his body. He must learn how to better use his body in addition and must work on widening his catching radius. Blocking wise he needs a ton of improvement as he his not consistently physical enough. He needs to get much stronger. His strong suits include an ability to find soft areas of the field and his understanding of the game. Paulson does have an outside chance to make the 53 man roster with Saunders slated to start the season on the suspended list and it could come down to whether or not the Steelers decide to keep two or three tight ends until Saunders returns. Keep in mind though that David Johnson has now been moved to fullback, but that move does not mean that he could not still serve as a third tight end in addition. In the end, my gut tells me that Paulson is more than likely headed for the practice squad to develop for a year.
Jamie McCoy - McCoy was with the Steelers last year in training camp and saw action during the preseason at both tight end and fullback. He impressed enough to get signed to the practice squad, where he spent most of the season. His biggest battle headed into training camp this year is to outplay Paulson for a spot on the practice as he has no chance at making the 53 man roster this season.
Previous Training Camp Roster Battle Post
2012 Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Roster Battles: Defensive Ends
2012 Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Roster Battles: Wide Receivers
2012 Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Roster Battles: Kickers
2012 Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Roster Battles: Cornerbacks
2012 Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Roster Battles: Safeties
2012 Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Roster Battles: Running Backs
2012 Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Roster Battles: Nose Tackles