Tight Situation At Tight End Could Have Serious Roster Implications

By Matthew Marczi

Going into the offseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers were already abundantly aware of the fact that starting tight end Heath Miller would take a significant amount of time to rehab his late-season knee injury, likely into the start of the regular season, allowing them to work around, and accommodate, his circumstances.

In doing do, they re-signed David Johnson to a one-year contract after missing all of the 2012 season with a torn ACL of his own suffered in the preseason. They also brought back former Steelers tight end Matt Spaeth to serve as the primary blocking tight end, and they saw growth in second-year player David Paulson.

It seemed as though there was plenty of depth to get by for a while without rushing Miller back from a serious injury. However, Johnson’s knee continues to slowly recover, and Spaeth—after earlier having his knee drained—suffered a Lisfranc injury that could sideline him for half of the regular season or more.

The consensus is that the Steelers will activate Miller from the Physically Unable to Perform list before the beginning of the regular season. The team is a long way away from knowing whether or not he will be able to contribute even in an emergency capacity in week one, however. Like Rashard Mendenhall last year, the idea behind activating him is that it gives him time to practice during the first six weeks of the regular season even if he cannot play.

What they decide to do with Matt Spaeth, then, could have repercussions down the line at other positions. Spaeth is not eligible for the PUP list, because he was not on the list in training camp. The only option to keep him with the team while not forfeiting his roster spot would be to place him on injured reserve with a return designation, which would guarantee that he cannot play for the first eight weeks, or practice for the first six weeks, of the season.

If the Steelers opt to carry both Miller and Spaeth on the active roster despite knowing that they will not be able to contribute for several weeks, the likelihood of them carrying an extra tight end—either Johnson, Jamie McCoy, or waiver claim Michael Palmer—is extremely high, and carrying five tight ends in total is also not out of the question. Paulson has shown improvement in his second year, but he is not a do-everything tight end and his less than ideal strength as a blocker remains an issue.

If they do decide to carry four tight ends, that will mean one less roster spot for another position. Some players that come to mind that could lose a roster spot due to the situation at tight end include Baron Batch, Derek Moye, Reggie Dunn, Brian Arnfelt, Nick Williams, Adrian Robinson, Alan Baxter, Vince Williams, DaMon Cromartie-Smith; the list can go on.

One option the Steelers could implement to prevent this scenario, other than simply cutting down on two tight end sets, would be to integrate fullback Will Johnson into the tight end meeting rooms, where he played in college.

Johnson has absolutely minimal experience as an in-line blocker on the professional level, but has shown an aptitude for blocking from the fullback position. He also has good hands and is expected to be utilized more in the passing game in his second year. David Johnson, of course, served as the third tight end despite primarily lining up in the backfield.

One would have to think, however, that the Steelers could not possibly be content entering the first game of the season with Paulson, Will Johnson, and maybe offensive lineman Kelvin Beachum as the sum total of their tight end options in various packages.

Should the Steelers opt to place Spaeth on injured reserve, it still opens the team to the risk of losing a player. In order to be placed on injured reserve with a return designation, that player must be part of the final 53-man roster. Only then can he be placed on reserve.

It did not cost them anybody when they placed David DeCastro on the list a year ago (in fact they added cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke), but it remains a very real possibility. Even if the Steelers feel they can get by with two tight ends while Miller recovers, they still must put somebody at risk of being signed elsewhere.

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • DAYSNWAYS

    Will Johnson, come week 1, is the only player who could come in and play the all around TE Position effectively. I wouldn’t be surprise at all to see him utilised until Heath’s return. We effectively brought in Spaeth to be the blocking foil to Heath on the other side, Paulson is more Heath than he is Spaeth. DJ is the obvious replacement but he is still recovering too, what a mess!!

  • steeltown

    I see Miller being activated from PUP at regular season, maybe starting by week 3or4.. and would place Spaeth on IR with designation (pending no serious injury to another starter during preseason games) and then enter the season with Paulson and Jamie McCoy as your TE’s and utilize Will Johnson there as well if/when needed… maybe place Nathan Overbay on the PS till Miller fully returns

  • Shannon Stephenson

    The Will Johnson theory sounds good if he can handle taking it on. Its a mess that is for sure.

  • Christopher Wilkes

    I’m not drinking the Spaeth kool-aid. He’ll be put on IR with designation to return, unless a more serious injury happens between now and then. Roster spots are too valuable to waste one for half a season on an, at best, average player. I’m sure the Steelers will keep another TE until Heath returns, and after 1 preseason game that looks to be Michael Palmer. If we have to risk a player that could contribute in order to have Spaeth on the 53, so he can be placed on IR, than can’t we just cut Spaeth outright? I mean, what’s the point in keeping him?

  • cencalsteeler

    I too, question Spaeths return. When Phillip Thomas suffered the same Lisfranc injury, they quickly stated he was done for the year. Will Johnson can fill in till Heath comes back. I say the more Will is a contributor to this offense, the better chance we have of winning games.

  • walter mason

    I was under the impression we can only use the IR return designation 1x during the year. Is this true? Are we sure we want to use it on Spaeth? Shouldnt we save it for an offensive lineman or a more important player? Like someone else said, cant we just waive him injured and sign him back later or is there a big risk of losing him to another team? Miller should/could be on the final roster but not both of them.