For the past 10 seasons, there has been but one sheriff in town when it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the tight end position—that would be Heath Miller, the two-time Pro Bowler and a stalwart of the offense.
That doesn't look to change in 2015, but change could be on the horizon, if the drafting of Penn State tight end Jesse James in Round 5 this year is any indication. James is much like Miller in that he can catch and block, and at 6'7" and 254 pounds, he is almost identical to Miller in body type.
But there's no reason to not mark down—in pen—that Miller will continue to be the Steelers' starting tight end in 2015. At nearly 33 years old and now three years removed from a severe knee injury, Miller has showed few signs of slowing down. He totaled 66 receptions last year for 761 yards and three scores, and he had 338 yards after the catch.
Miller is more than a receiver, though. Of his 1,103 snaps played in 2014, according to Pro Football Focus, 544 were as a receiver and 430 were as a run-blocker, the latter earning him a positive grade of plus-2.9. He also allowed just one sack on his 124 pass-blocking plays.
|Key 2014 Stats for Steelers Tight Ends|
|*Collegiate stats; via ESPN.com and Sports-Reference.com|
He does know that the end of his career looms. He has two years left on his contract, but the Steelers could move on as early as 2016, depending on how James develops during his rookie season.
Miller said to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Gene Collier that, "Obviously I've played more games than I have in front of me; I think I can safely make that statement. ... You have to face that reality [of retirement]. I'd like to say that I'm trying to prepare myself for it. Sooner or later, that day will come for me, but right now, I'm enjoying what I've got."
But even if James does develop into an all-around tight end in the mold of Miller, he still won't be as much of an impact-maker as a blocker. Which is where Matt Spaeth comes in.
Spaeth has often been used in two-tight end sets by the Steelers during his six total seasons with the team. But, unlike Miller, he's not much of a receiver, having surpassed 100 receiving yards just once in his career. He had just 46 yards and one score on three catches in 2014.
Still, Spaeth ranked 17th among all tight ends last year, according to Pro Football Focus, primarily because of his blocking skills. His positive run-blocking grade of plus-4.1 tied him for sixth in the league at tight end. His prowess as a blocker is easily seen in his snap breakdown. Last year, he played 361 snaps, with 77 as a receiver, 210 as a run-blocker and 74 as a pass protector.
Spaeth turns 32 years old in November and is currently working on a two-year, $2.2 million contract he signed this offseason. Between himself and Miller, Spaeth is the tight end less likely to lose snaps to the rookie James, simply because James is more valuable as a receiver, while Spaeth earns his money as a high-level blocker.
But James should still have a role to play as a receiver, one who could cut into Miller's targets this season. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ray Fittipaldo pegs James as the "surprise rookie" of the Steelers' 2015 class, writing, "He has impressed me as a receiver. He'd be a big target in the red zone if the Steelers choose to use him down there."
And given how much Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley is stressing being more productive in the red zone this year, a tall, powerful target like James could be an asset.
In three years at Penn State, James totaled 78 receptions for 1,005 yards and 11 scores—numbers that could have been much higher in a more tight end-friendly offense. In 2014, he had 38 catches for 396 yards and three touchdowns.
James is excited to learn from the Steelers' duo of established veterans, saying earlier this month that, "There wasn't a better place to go as a tight end in this year's draft. To be able to come in and play under great tight ends here, it's a great situation for me to be able to learn from them and hopefully take what I learn and display it on the field."
Though the Steelers haven't had much luck drafting in Round 5 in recent years, James could prove to finally buck that unfortunate trend. He might see his opportunities somewhat limited, just based on the established presences of Miller and Spaeth, but that doesn't mean he can't make an impact as a rookie.
The real question is what becomes of Rob Blanchflower, a Steelers' 2014 seventh-round draft pick. Blanchflower spent his rookie season on the practice squad and, like James, is primarily a receiver with even more marginal blocking skills than the rookie.
Blanchflower was hurt much of last summer, costing him a chance to make the 53-man roster; he was beaten out by Michael Palmer, who didn't catch a pass for Pittsburgh last year and was not re-signed this offseason.
Steelers Depot's Matthew Marczi believes Blanchflower will yet again be outside of the 53-man roster looking in if he cannot get his body in condition enough to stay healthy through the summer. It's hard to disagree with him, especially given the team drafting James and the positive reviews undrafted rookie Cameron Clear has gotten during the offseason.
Unprovoked, Haley said the following to Steelers Nation Radio, via Steelers Depot:
It's like this free agent Cameron Clear that we have. I mean, he's a big, good-looking body and had about six catches last year and wasn't on the field. So it's just what you value and what you think gives you the best chance to win, and I think that as long as we're all here, we'll value a big tight end that can catch and block.
Haley was right about Clear's low catch total in two years at Texas A&M—he had only nine receptions for 76 yards and one score and just five catches for 34 yards in 2014. But stats don't always belie a player's talent, which is something Haley clearly sees in Clear (pun mostly unintended). Because Clear has the well-rounded tight end skill set that the Steelers prefer, he could have a leg up on Blanchflower this offseason.
Filling out the position is Michael Egnew, a 2012 third-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins who was unceremoniously dumped by the team last August after failing to develop into the top-tier blocker they had envisioned. He bounced around to the Detroit Lions and Jacksonville Jaguars before spending most of 2014 out of the NFL. He was signed to a reserve/future contract with the Steelers this offseason.
Egnew is a blocker—he's caught only seven NFL passes for 69 yards in his career. With Spaeth having the blocking tight end job locked down, Egnew seems destined to be a camp body and little more.
At the very most, he could be another obstacle blocking Clear or Blanchflower's path to the 53-man roster, but even that could be exaggerating his role in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers' tight end group has been one of the league's most stable for 10 years. That stability is set to continue in 2015, with Miller reprising his role as the starter, Spaeth handling blocking duties and now James—and perhaps also Clear—earning regular-season snaps as either blockers or receivers.
The position is in good hands this year and, based on how promising Clear and James have looked, seems to be a strength for years to come.