There was once a time in the National Football League where the position of ‘tight end’ was either the butt of jokes (see? Like that one) or just simply another tackle on the end of the line. Tight ends were typically guys who were too slow to be wide receivers and too small to be linemen. Guys like Mike Ditka and Russ Francis were considered among some of the best. Eventually, the tight end evolved as football players evolved into athletes and we got guys more like Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez who could block yet could also stretch the field.
In Pittsburgh, Steelers’ tight end Heath Miller has been a fan-favorite since he joined the team in 2005 and contributed to the team finally getting their 5th Super Bowl ring. Miller is exactly the type of tough, hard-nosed player people in the Steel City love and appreciate. Count me as one who absolutely loves the guy and hard he plays.
As the Steelers prepare for the 2012 NFL Draft they seem to be in good shape at the tight end position but a closer look may say otherwise. Tight ends are no longer the big burly type that Miller is. He is not going to make anyone miss and he will never be mistaken for ‘fast,’ but the guys catches the ball and blocks his tail off. In the ‘new’ NFL however, that might not be enough.
More and more teams are looking for tight ends who can abuse not only linebackers covering them but also safeties. While this draft doesn’t appear to have any Aaron Hernandez’s or Rob Gronkowski’s in it, it does have some potentially talented guys available. Don’t be shocked if the Steelers go in this direction with Wes Saunders, entering his 2nd year, serving a four-game ban for violating the substance abuse policy. While it may have been a misunderstanding, Saunders is still going to miss a quarter of the season and he may not be the guy to fill-in for Miller anyway.
If the Steelers go in this direction, there are a couple of guys to keep an eye on but one thing is for certain, this is not a great tight end class. None of the three listed below are expected to be the second coming of Gronkowski. Still, they could be guys who can make a difference on the right team, especially the Steelers.
Coby Fleener of Stanford- While Fleener did not work out at the combine, he remains one of the ‘must-have’ tight ends in 2012. A main target of Andrew Luck, Fleener has big hands and can stretch the field the way NFL teams are looking for in this day and age. At 6’6” his size creates instant match-up problems for smaller backers and safeties. To his benefit, the one guy rated ahead of him going into the combine, Dwayne Allen of Clemson, had a fairly poor showing which could elevate Fleener to top status.
Michael Egnew of Missouri- Another tall guy at just a shade under 6’ 6,” Egnew runs the 40 in around 4.5 so he can certainly create match-up problems much like Fleener. He also has a 36” vertical which makes his size even more difficult to handle. He was a top target in Missouri’s wide-open attack but other Tigers’ tight ends have not fared well at the next level so there is concern.
James Hanna of Oklahoma- Another tall tight end with 4.5 speed who could create serious mismatches for defenders. In an offense that relies much more on wideouts than tight ends, Hanna recorded 27 catches and two scores for the Sooners in 2011. He had a very nice showing at the combine and could easily be a day two selection and certainly will go on day three.
While the Steelers will not go tight end in the first round, I believe it’s a position where an early draft pick could be used if one of these three guys is available. There are others in the mold of a Heath Miller, but the Steelers would be looking for someone with more speed and athleticism to compliment Miller. Don’t be surprised to see the Steelers go in this direction especially if they keep Mike Wallace which could eliminate a need to draft another wideout.