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.