By Matthew Marczi
For a team facing so much adversity in the past season and heading into the next with a litany of questions to address, it’s natural to consider the issues and how they can either go right or wrong, as well as how they will affect the broader dynamics and future success of the team, both heading into this season and into the future.
Though not statistically true, it is technically true that every team enters the offseason with the potential to finish the year as the league champion or as the first team on the clock in the next draft.
Some teams have a wider realistic range than others, and I think the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of those teams. Think of them as Schrödinger’s franchise; in February, they are both future champions and future owners of the top draft pick.
In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the optimistic side of the coin.
Question: Do the Steelers have enough at tight end to get by through the 2014 season?
With three tight ends currently on the roster, and one of those being David Paulson, the position could be said to be a bit thin. On the other hand, David Johnson should be an easy player to re-sign, given his recent injury history and the fact that he’s simply not a very desirable talent.
There is also the possibility of re-signing Michael Palmer, who was a late offseason addition after the position was hampered by injuries and played well enough to stick around for the entire season as the Steelers carried four tight ends. That is an oddity, though of course Palmer was mainly used on special teams.
The top two tight ends, of course, are Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth. And quite frankly, the Steelers didn’t get the best out of either last season, which only plays in favor of the idea that the team is fine at the position in terms of what they need on the field to get by in 2014.
Miller, obviously, tore his ACL at the end of the 2012 season and wasn’t ready to go to start last year, missing the first two games. Surprisingly, his first couple of games back were some of his best in terms of blocking, particularly run blocking, as he struggled often in these areas as the season progressed.
While he put up some of the better receiving numbers of his career in terms of receptions and yardage, he managed just one touchdown and his yards per catch dropped as well. He struggles more than ever to gain separation, but it wasn’t completely detrimental to his game, and it could improve somewhat this year, being further removed from the knee injury.
Spaeth, too, dealt with significant injury, as he suffered a Lisfranc tear in his foot late into the offseason and ended up missing the first three quarters of the season. When Johnson also went down, it really put the team in a bind at tight end until the final stretch of games.
Though he too had some growing pains coming back, there were many times where he displayed his blocking prowess that made the Steelers bring him back on a three-year deal. He is an excellent secondary blocking tight end, though nobody will ever mistake him for a quality starting tight end. He does force defenses to account for him as a receiver, as his nice touchdown grab attests.
With Miller and Spaeth further removed from their previous injuries, and some combination of Johnson, Paulson, and Palmer serving backup, I believe the Steelers have more than sufficient talent to succeed in 2014. By no means does this mean that they shouldn’t approach the position, even aggressively, in the draft, however, because Miller in particular isn’t getting any younger.