Healthy Tight Ends Auditioning For Inevitable Cuts Later In Season

By Matthew Marczi

The Pittsburgh Steelers obviously feel as though they have three healthy tight ends right now that they can feel good about to some degree. Otherwise they surely could have found a better way to utilize their roster spots than to carry five of them on the initial 53-man roster.

Yes, the team generally likes to have three healthy tight ends, and it is unclear when starter Heath Miller will be ready to participate in games, but, as noted yesterday, they also continue to work tackle Kelvin Beachum at tight end, which one would think should afford them the flexibility to get by with less tight ends in the meantime.

After moving tight end Matt Spaeth to the short-term injured reserve, the Steelers now have four tight ends on the roster. But what happens when Miller is up and running and Spaeth is set to check back in? Certainly Spaeth is still viewed as the top backup tight end, and a roster spot will be made for him upon his return.

But the Steelers kept five tight ends initially exclusively because they knew they would be moving Spaeth off the roster for at least the first eight weeks of the season in addition to the possibility of needing to get by without Miller for a few weeks.

When Miller and Spaeth are healthy, then, it is abundantly obvious that the roster will once again be tinkered with, and the tight end depth chart will be truncated by at least one, if not two.

So, for now, and possibly for the next eight weeks or more, there are three tight ends on the roster vying to stick throughout the season, battling for possibly just one position. Each offers a different skill set, and I do not believe there is a clear favorite as to who or how many will remain on the roster by the end of the year, barring further injuries.

David Johnson is the longest-tenured member, not only on the team, but in the league, having been a seventh-round draft pick in 2009. He spent much of his first two seasons primarily as an h-back/fullback, blocking from the backfield, but was integrated more frequently as an in-line blocker in 2011. Last year, he was moved permanently to fullback, but an ACL tear caused him to miss the entire year, and Will Johnson has cemented himself as the team’s fullback.

With David Johnson back at tight end—and also looking more like a tight end—he has been getting more looks as an in-line blocker. He still has some rust to knock off from being out of football for a year, but he should gain confidence in his physical abilities as the season goes on.

David Paulson was a seventh-round draft pick from a season ago who came out of a college program that utilized him in more of an h-back, move tight end role. His bread and butter has been as a receiver, and he has flashed that some this preseason. He has the willingness of a blocker, especially on the move, but his strength has yet to catch up to his determination.

Michael Palmer was an in-camp waiver signing this year due to the injuries at tight end. Undrafted in 2010, he spent his career with the Atlanta Falcons up until now, playing in 43 games and catching 21 passes with three touchdowns behind Tony Gonzalez. His primary legwork, however, has been in the less heralded responsibilities of the tight end position, and he had earned his keep mainly as a run-blocking tight end. He may have been a late addition, but by no means is it a given that he should be the odd man out if and when the tight end position regains its health. All three will be given their chance to state their case while Miller and Spaeth recover.

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

    I still don’t know what to think regarding D.Johnson, if healthy he is adequate, but is he ready to roll after being out all of last season and no training camp..

  • http://www.amazon.com/The-Sibyl-Reborn-ebook/dp/B009KNQHSM James P. Kelly

    Exactly! He must be rusty–and rusty tight ends miss blocks or get called for holding; they drop passes, miss reads, and are unlikely to be steeled for 60 minutes of NFL pounding.

  • Jonathon Bert Schade

    Paulson is the future, Spaeth is the past.

  • steeltown

    Well hopefully, in the future, Paulson can learn how to in-line block

  • Kenneth Wilt

    I’m not sure this is such a difficult decision to make. Look at the current roster and we have 4 TEs on it, the 3 listed above and Heath. When Spaeth comes back, 1 guy at the position needs to go. Unless injuries start happening all over the place and we need the roster spot, I could potentially see us carrying 4 TEs this year. What position do we currently need to add at?

    QB…no we have 3
    RB….no we have 4/5 with FB
    WR…no we have 5 on the roster (plus Brown on PS)
    Oline….we only dress 7 anyway and we have 8. A minor injury could create a need here, but at the moment we don’t need to add anyone.

    Dline…no we have 6 (plus Arnfelt on PS)
    OLB…no we have 4 (plus Baxter on PS)
    ILB…no we have 5 for a total of 2 spots
    S…no we have 5 for 2 spots
    CB…no we have 5. This could potentially be a problem should injuries come up to the starters. Victorian, Hawthorne and our PS guys are still in the mix should we need to bring someone back.

    The only reason to impact the roster is minor injuries where you are only going to be out a couple of games not put on IR. If you put the guy on IR, it won’t impact our roster, but it will be the nicked up type injuries which could create problems.

  • dgh57

    Sounds like the TEs on our roster are having their training camp extended a few weeks as all 3 names mentioned above are still auditioning for a roster spot on this team. I think the Steelers originally wanted Miller, Spaeth, and Paulson as their TEs and so I think that’s how it will end up. D. Johnson may be kept as a backup to Will Johnson as a FB and as a 4th TE, as I believe he has experience at both, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

  • Douglas Andrews

    Palmer is the wildcard. Paulson is a below average in line blocker and he seems worse this year than he was last. DJ is a decent blocker but not the pass catching threat that Paulson is. I think it depends on the health of the team when Spaeth is back after the 8wks or so. I was thinking we only need to make one roster move to cover for Spaeth. I know that leaves us with 4 TE’s but the 4th would be an inactive anyway.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Spaeth is the player with a three-year contract.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Yeah, I definitely think it’s still up in the air regarding whether they will cut one or two if all five are healthy, and obviously how well they perform will be a big part of that. Palmer is a special teams contributor, so that could play into his favor. Paulson has three years left on his contract, and they may not want to mess with that. But Johnson is the best suited to fill in at fullback if need be. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.

  • Douglas Andrews

    So seeing as DJ has position flexibility at the both TE and FB I could see him being a lock to stay. Maybe the battle could be between Paulson and Palmer depending on which one turns out to be the better ST player?

  • Matthew Marczi

    That could be it, but Johnson also has to show he’s healthy (although he seemed to look fine to me in the last preseason game). I honestly think they will all get their fair shot. Nobody is a lock to stay or go right now in my mind.

  • Douglas Andrews

    Guess i’m hoping to throw DJ in because i see a real problem with Will Johnson being down. Wouldnt worry as much if Heath and or Spaeth was healthy but no real backup at FB seems to be a cause for concern. At least DJ and this is provided he’s healthy could give us a backup at FB.

  • Douglas Andrews

    Oh I posted this before I saw the article regarding the possible use of different personnel groupings to offset not having Will Johnson available.

  • Jonathon Bert Schade

    He never impressed me during his first stint here and in Chicago he was one of the guys responsible for the Bears stellar running game, not to mention Cutler’s few sacks. (sarcasm alert) We know what Spaeth brings to the table….leftovers. And I doubt voiding his contract would bust the bank. Paulson is twice the receiver and nearly as good (average at best) blocker as Spaeth.

  • Jonathon Bert Schade

    Spaeth was a bum here and in Chicago. Now he is older. Has he learned how to hold better?

  • Matthew Marczi

    You mention sarcasm, but you shouldn’t. He was in fact the leading run-blocking tight end in the entire league last year.

  • Jonathon Bert Schade

    The sarcasm alert was in reference to the Bear’s passing, 25th in the league and the fact that they allowed 41 sacks. So is Spaeth a first down running play TE? Dump him and see what Paulson can do!!!

  • Matthew Marczi

    Spaeth is actually not asked to pass protect much. With the Steelers, in fact, he pass protected on less than 9% of all passing plays, and for his career, he has only been on the field for about 28% of his team’s passing plays. I wrote an article on how he should see career-highs in pass protection before he was injured that looks into a lot of these numbers.

    http://www.steelersdepot.com/2013/07/matt-spaeth-could-see-career-high-usage-in-pass-protection-this-season/

  • Douglas Andrews

    Honestly I thought he was good enough to get a second contract here before he left probably for better money to Chicago. He’s a backup! he’s never gonna be a Heath Miller clone but he’s a good blocker as well as a pass catching threat.

  • RedCarpetDefense

    Paulson is not the future. That player has yet to be drafted.

  • Jonathon Bert Schade

    He can run block, it’s true. His pass blocking is sub-standard. He can be blanketed by a LB and Kelvin Beachum is as threatening a receiver. Give the kid, Paulson a real shot, I think he has potential and is most certainly a better receiver.

  • Jonathon Bert Schade

    I don’t mean to say Paulson is headed for Canton, only that his potential is far greater that Spaeth’s, a one dimensional run blocker. He can’t pass block and frightens no one as a receiver. Paulson is still learning and could be an adequate backup for years to come.

  • RedCarpetDefense

    Haha…Canton..! I agree he has better potential than Spaeth, a reasonable assessment on Paulson considering where he was drafted yes he should be a good backup. Just wish a TE was drafted this past draft as it seemed that position was deep.