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.