Some roles in the NFL are fairly straightforward. One position where that doesn’t apply is tight end. What each organization expects from its tight end differs greatly team to team. There are franchises that want their tight ends to simply be extensions of their wide receiver corps and provide the quarterback with multiple weapons in the passing game.
Other teams want their tight ends to be something akin to additional offensive linemen. And should they find themselves making a catch here or there, that’s just a bonus.
Where do the Pittsburgh Steelers fall on this continuum? Well, they don’t appear to be on the hunt for the next Jimmy Graham, but at the same time, their tight ends aren’t simply relegated to blocking duties either.
Let’s break down the Steelers’ tight end depth chart for the upcoming season.
Before we get too far, let’s take a look at the principal players here. The Steelers currently have six tight ends under contract and in camp.
- Heath Miller
- Matt Spaeth
- David Paulson
- Michael Palmer
- Rob Blanchflower
- Eric Waters
Last season, the Steelers carried four tight ends, which means it is likely that two of these players won’t make it through to the start of the season.
Starter: Heath Miller
Just like death and taxes, seeing Miller on the field for the Steelers has been a certainty the past nine seasons. Of 144 possible games where Miller could have appeared, he was in 137 of them. Oh, and as a bonus, he started 136 of those. There’s consistency, and there’s Miller.
Miller’s game isn’t predicated on speed or overwhelming athleticism. His game is all about using his physicality and veteran smarts to beat defenses. He has among the top hands of any tight end in the league and understands how to get open. Even at 31 years old, Miller is still among the most efficient pass-catchers in the league.
Miller finished 2013 with 58 receptions and only two drops. Not to mention, Miller is a powerful in-line blocker and does well in bolstering the rushing offense when he’s on the field.
There’s no player on this roster who is going to challenge Miller for his spot now or in the foreseeable future. This is a good news/bad news situation. On the bright side, the tight end position is stable for the next couple of seasons. On the downside, if Miller were to happen to suffer an injury, things could get dicey. How dicey? Just read on.
Primary Backup: Matt Spaeth
For all that Miller brings to the offense, veteran Spaeth is a different sort of player. During his seven-year career, Spaeth have been either starter or co-starter in 57 games. Unfortunately, during those 57 games, Spaeth has only been able to muster 50 receptions.
What this means is when Spaeth is on the field, it’s not about the passing game. Spaeth is a great run-blocking tight end, and if the Steelers are planning to bring sexy back to the rushing game, Spaeth is going to see lots of snaps.
Ideally, this team would have a better No. 2 option on the roster. Nevertheless, if for some reason Miller can’t get on the field, the middle of the field is going to shrink in terms of targets. Spaeth struggles athletically as a receiver and has a hard time getting open.
Fortunately, this team has plenty of weapons. So, should Spaeth be pressed into a larger role, it shouldn’t slow this passing offense down much.
Veteran Backups: David Paulson/Michael Palmer
If nothing changes from last season’s depth chart, expect Paulson and Palmer to round things out. Paulson is an interesting player, because he deviates greatly from the norm as far as what Pittsburgh typically covets at tight end.
At only 6’4” and 246 pounds, Paulson is somewhat undersized by Steelers standards. However, he is faster and significantly more athletic than any of those tight ends ahead of him on the roster.
The downside to Paulson’s game is that he’s not much of a blocker, meaning if he makes gains this season, it would be as a situational player on passing downs.
Unfortunately, there is far less to be excited about with Palmer. He’s a slow, lumbering tight end who can block but won’t scare any defenses as a receiver. If there’s a veteran spot on the roster one of these rookies can bump, it is Palmer.
The Rookies: Rob Blanchflower/Eric Waters
I’ll be the first to admit, I thought the Steelers would place a higher priority on the tight end position in the 2014 NFL draft than they did. Granted, this tight end class was top-heavy, albeit a bit shallow overall, but there were some very interesting players the Steelers chose to pass on.
Interestingly, the two tight ends the Steelers brought in are stark contrasts in body type and style of play. Pittsburgh used a seventh-round pick on Blanchflower from UMass and later signed Missouri’s Waters as an undrafted free agent.
Blanchflower is like a real comfy pair of slippers. He’s exactly what Steelers fans have come to know and love. He’s big, a little slow, but strong and physical. Nothing exciting, but he’s a safe player and could take Palmer’s roster spot.
On the other hand, we have Waters. He’s more like those flashy new LeBrons. Fast, athletic and exciting. However, they are also more flash than function, and wearing them to the food court might get you some funny looks. If Waters can play a lick of football, his athletic ability could keep him employed, at least in the short run.
Pittsburgh is going to carry four tight ends again this year, and there is tremendous optimism that the starter Miller is going to have a big season. Miller hauled in 58 receptions as Ben Roethlisberger’s security blanket in only 14 games. If Pittsburgh can get 16 starts out of Miller, a 70-reception season is not at all out of the question.
Beyond Miller, the depth chart should round out with Spaeth, Paulson and Blanchflower. Waters, for all his potential, is most likely relegated to the practice squad, and Palmer will be looking for work elsewhere. This is far from the sexiest positional unit on the team, but they fit exactly with what the Steelers want to do.
The player most likely to break out in 2014 is Paulson. His hybrid frame and athleticism would offer an exciting new wrinkle to the offense.
Looking beyond 2014, this team really needs to assess this positional unit and start to make moves for the eventual drop-off of Miller’s game. As mentioned before, if Miller is lost to injury, the dynamic (although perhaps not production) of the passing offense is going to change.
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