Heath Miller Signs with Steelers: Who's Next?

Todd FlemingAnalyst IAugust 3, 2009

BALTIMORE - DECEMBER 14:  Heath Miller #83 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs the ball after a reception against the Baltimore Ravens on December 14, 2008 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. The Steelers defeated the Ravens 13-9.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The Steelers made one last big preseason move with the signing of Heath Miller to a six-year, $35.3M contract, all but announcing that this will be their final big signing before the start of the season.

This was a signing that had to get done. Miller, a fan favorite, is still in his playing prime and is arguably the best tight end in the history of the team, a guy equally effective in both the running and passing games.

Back when he was drafted in 2005, I could not believe that Miller fell all the way to the Steelers at the bottom of the first round. Based on his college play, he looked like the perfect Steeler, and that is exactly how it has played out.

On a more selfish note, I had just ordered a "Heath Miller" Steelers jersey for a niece as a gift, so I'm glad that she'll be able to wear it for more than one year. 

The Korean lady from whom I ordered the jersey originally misunderstood me, and my niece was almost the future proud owner of the only No. 81 Terrell Owens Steelers jersey in town.  Not sure how I would have explained that one.

But Miller was the last Steeler entering his final contract year who I thought was a lock to be re-signed. 

With the salary cap situation being what it is, the Miller signing signals that a lot of key players are likely entering their last season in black and gold.

The core Steelers who will be playing in their final contract year are Jeff Reed, Casey Hampton, Willie Parker, Brett Keisel, and Ryan Clark.

I think it's safe to say that none of these guys will be hitting the unemployment line at the end of this season. But some of them will almost certainly move on to new teams after one final Super Bowl quest in the black and gold.

Brett Keisel and Willie Parker are almost certainly gone after this year with their replacements already on the roster in Evander Hood and Rashard Mendenhall.

Both of these guys have been superb Steelers, and Parker remains a very dangerous running back. No doubt the Steelers' top brass would love to keep both guys around, especially Keisel, since you can never have too many good defensive linemen.

But with so many teams moving to a 3-4 defensive alignment, the price he will demand, especially when factoring in his age, will simply be too high.

As for Parker, he has age, durability concerns, and the presence of a viable replacement all conspiring against him. The only scenario I can see where the Steelers try to find a way to bring back Parker is if Mendenhall proves to be a disastrous bust and Parker’s value drops to the point where they can afford to bring him back.

That’s not a likely combination of events, nor one that the Steelers are hoping to see happen.

Considering Keisel and Parker were a seventh round pick and an undrafted free agent respectively, both guys have been absolute gems for the Steelers. But the odds are squarely against either of them returning to the Steelers after this season.

The Steelers will no doubt have a stronger interest in bringing back the other three core players that consist of Hampton, Clark, and Reed.

What Casey Hampton has going for him is that a likely replacement is not on the roster. He is ably backed up by Chris Hoke, but Hoke will be 34 at the end of Hampton’s contract, one year older than Hampton.

The other thing he has going for him is that good nose tackles who can play in a 3-4 defensive scheme are a real commodity, harder to find than a Browns fan in Pittsburgh, or Cleveland for that matter after last season.

Hampton also has gone on record as saying he would like to finish his career in Pittsburgh, which I think counts for something. What he has going against him is his age, the concerns about his weight, and potential durability issues.

Personally, I think the weight issues are a little overblown. When a guy's primary responsibility is to be an unmovable force gumming up the middle of the line, are a few extra pounds really that big of a problem?

The other factor that could work against his return to Pittsburgh is that even at 33 he would still command a hefty salary on the open market now that so many teams have switched to a 3-4 base defensive scheme.

In terms of Hampton, a potentially uncapped year would be a double-edged sword that would cut both ways. It would enable the Steelers to make him a respectable offer, but it would also allow every other team in the league to do the same, driving up the price.

The nose tackle is a cornerstone of that defense, the guy that hogs all the blockers in the middle so the linebackers can run free and make plays. And several of the teams that have adopted that defense don’t have anything close to a Casey Hampton on their roster to make the scheme work.

My gut feeling is that the Steelers, without an heir apparent on the roster for Hampton, will find a way to bring him back, but only if he is willing to take slightly less than he might make somewhere else.

Ryan Clark’s status is more challenging to discern and it will all come down to what it will cost to bring him back. Clark was an absolutely superb free agent signing for the Steelers and gave them a credible free safety to pair with Troy Polamalu, something they were missing ever since Chris Hope left town.

He is the hardest hitting member of their defensive secondary, and pound for pound one of the hardest hitting players in the league. He also is underrated as a cover guy, which is important since it frees up Polamalu to wreak havoc all over the field.

But playing such a key role on one of the best defenses in the history of the game may price him outside of what the Steelers can afford to pay. If the league does have an uncapped year, the Steelers will make a serious run at keeping Clark since I think he is largely undervalued outside of Pittsburgh.

If Clark does leave, I'm not sure if the Steelers have a potential replacement on their roster.  If they do, it might be one of the rookie cornerbacks or a veteran cornerback, like Deshea Townsend, who could potentially convert to free safety for a few final seasons. 

As for Jeff Reed, I don’t think the Steelers will let him go. I can sum up my primary reason for that gut feeling in two words: Todd Peterson.

If you don’t remember that name, he was the horror show of a kicker for the Steelers before Reed came to town. Think Mitch Berger as the punter and magnify your feelings of disgust by about 10. That’s what it was like watching Todd Peterson kick at Heinz Field.

In defense of Peterson, Heinz Field is a kicker’s nightmare. Even good and seasoned kickers can look foolish there. But, in reasonable distance situations, Reed is as close to automatic as you can get.

Kickers don’t command huge salaries and Reed’s steady kicking at Heinz Field has been instrumental in several key wins. While kickers aren’t drafted high or paid much comparatively, they have a huge impact on a team’s overall record.

What Reed has going against him is his flaky behavior.

Even factoring that into the equation, I don’t think the Steelers will want to roll the dice with another kicker and will bring back Reed.

So, in the final tally, my guess is that Keisel, Parker, and Clark will leave town in 2010 while Hampton and Reed remain with the Steelers. The best case scenario would have all but Keisel and Parker returning, but I would not be at all surprised if all but Reed ended up leaving.


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