The Pessimist’s Take – The Tight End Position In 2014

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 pessimistic side of the coin.

Question: Do the Steelers have enough at tight end to get by through the 2014 season?

The Steelers’ top tight end will turn 32 by mid-season and often visibly looked worse for wear last year while playing on his surgically repaired knee for the last 14 games of the season. The new backup—which is the old backup that they just brought back—missed three quarters of the year due to a foot injury. And there’s really nobody of note behind them, even considering free agents.

A pessimist might look at this situation and say that there’s something wrong here.

There’s no beating around the bush here: Heath Miller can no longer gain separation from linebackers, let alone safeties, out in coverage, which makes it all the more difficult for Ben Roethlisberger to get him the ball, and to produce yards after the catch.

That’s probably why he had the lowest yards per catch total of his entire 10-year career with a paltry 10.2 yards, more than a yard shy of his career average. Over the last three seasons prior, in fact, he averaged just under 12 yards per catch by less than a tenth of a yard. That’s a pretty significant, and telling, decline.

Oh, and he also had just one touchdown all year, despite 58 catches, the third-highest total of his career. And that touchdown came on a shovel pass.

What’s more, Miller wasn’t looking any better out there blocking, either. He had already gradually been trending downward in that regard, but after a couple games back this past season, his performance as a blocker, particularly in the running game, became quite spotty, and he had some downright poor performances.

Meanwhile, Matt Spaeth proved unable to stay healthy before even playing in the preseason, and his foot injury lingered for months before he was finally able to return in December. While he was eventually able to play well, he’ll never be mistaken for Miller in his prime. And neither will Miller at this point

David Paulson is simply not a blocking tight end, based on two years of evidence, and any time he’s on the field in that capacity is a one-on-one victory for the defense. And how often are the Steelers going to throw to their third tight end?

David Johnson has spent the majority of the past two seasons on injured reserve. After a couple games of getting his feet underneath him, Johnson played okay last season, but how long can he stay healthy?

Meanwhile, Michael Palmer is just a guy. Outside of him and Paulson, all of the other tight ends now have a serious medical history with no clear evidence that either re-injury or hindered performance won’t be a recurring theme for them.

Even if the available group is able to perform up to their highest level when healthy, the question of how long they will stay that way is a prominent one, as we all saw last season. Mike Tomlin spoke about the team’s inability last season to insulate themselves against injury at key positions, and that could easily be the tight end position once again in 2014.

The Optimist’s Take – The Tight End Position In 2014

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • 20Stoney

    To me this is more of a realist take, than a pessimist’s take. Or maybe I’m just a pessimist with the tight ends and don’t realize it….

  • Caesar

    I agree. I put this right up there as a prime draft need. Thought it was last year, too, and really wanted Eifert but oh well. I wonder if this could be a spot to find a bargain in free agency; maybe Brandon Pettigrew has a cold market, or maybe Ed Dickson or Dustin Keller is worth a flier. But would love getting Ebron, Nicklas, Sefarian-Jenkins, or Fiedorowicz in the draft.

  • steeltown

    Been thinking lately about a trade back and get Seferian-Jenkins and Kyle Fuller… I think both will end up being late-1st to mid-2nd Rd selections

    Of course, I know that will never happen, someone will fall to #15 overall

  • James Kling

    Love the Schrodinger franchise idea. Nicely done.

    Miller never had top-flight speed, so IMO his decline won’t be precipitous: he’s got a few years left. Spaeth, meh. The rest, less than meh. Johnson is IMO a FB.
    Definitely would look to add a TE via the draft or FA. Good value in the first three rounds for hybrid TEs. But the combine is going to be interesting to see if any late rounders stand out.

  • PA2AK

    Can we please be done with Paulson? Anyone else think he looks particularly pathetic on the field? Not only does he block like a ballerina, when he’s in motion he looks pitiful.

  • PA2AK

    I don’t mind a TE that can catch like a champ…but if you can’t block anything bigger than 6′-0″ 200lbs…you can move along.

  • steeltown

    He has some really nice hands, but we need TE’s that can block. Also to that, if we were purely looking for a pass catching TE than I still think we can do better than Paulson, who is pretty damn slow for his size.

  • shawn

    one thing i can almost always count on …. Steelers never draft the way i hope they do … not that its necessarily bad … just never go the direction i hope … and what u are talking about is pretty much the same idea i have unfortunately !

  • shawn

    he is taking up a roster space …. i think he’s gone !

  • shawn

    well said

  • shawn

    This is definitely more of a realistic take … we have needed a 2nd TE for several years now … we are so far behind the curve in this trend … the dual TE (split out) has arguably made the biggest impact on offense over the last decade … and it started around the time of Gates in San Diego … what is taking us soo long .. or do they just not want to go that route ?

  • shawn

    Like all those guys … but think Fied would be Heath’s replacement rather than be a 2nd TE split out option … Heath will be done in 2-3 yrs … so actually we need both TE positions now … traditional big blocking TE that can catch and another TE that can be split out and create mismatch problems as well …

    hopefully we get both in the next couple years as they can learn under Heath before he leaves ! I actually think it is our biggest need behind quality DBs (both ball hawks and steeler types)