The tight end position for the Steelers is one of those things that every fan screams for more use of every year but we never seem to get our prayers answered. Each year we wonder if the offense will finally feature more use of the tight end in the redzone or on 3rd down, but deep down inside we know it’s not going to happen. It’s just not what the Steelers do.
Now with new offensive coordinator Todd Haley on the payroll, perhaps things will be different. Perhaps we’ll see Heath Miller in the back of the endzone more often or going after a jump ball in the corner. Newly acquired free agent Leonard Pope is a solid blocking back but he’s got good hands as well, and he’s familiar with Haley’s offensive philosophy. So who knows, maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t but the Steelers have some good talent at this position nonetheless.
Heath Miller: The unquestioned starter and one of Ben’s best safety valves. Miller is as good a blocker as they come and has very underrated skills in the passing game. He’s an ironman, as reliable as they get in the NFL at his position. Since coming to the team in 2005, Miller has missed only 4 regular season games. He had his 2nd best year in terms of receptions with 51 (in 2009 he had 76). Still though he only had 4 TD’s to his credit over the last 2 years.
The continued health of Miller will be important to the offense and for Ben Roethlisberger no matter what role he plays in the offense.
Leonard Pope: No one knows for sure if the aquisition of Pope was partly due to the suspension of Weslye Saunders or if the Steelers just wanted another productive body behind Miller; likely it’s a combination of both. At 6’6″, 250 lbs he’s got the size to be an effective blocker for the Steelers much like he was for the Chiefs; something Pittsburgh covets in a tight end. Since coming into the league in 2006 he has 102 receptions for 973 yds and 9 TD’s. While his production doesn’t equal that of Miller, he was clearly used in a similar role in both Kansas City and Arizona, which suggests that Haley could do the same in Pittsburgh. However, KC didn’t have the offensive firepower that the Steelers do so we can’t assume anything just yet. He’ll make the team as the primary backup to Miller.
David Johnson: The 7th round draft pick in 2009 has mainly been used as the FB in Bruce Arians’ offense. While finishing the year with just 12 catches, he did come up with some big 3rd down conversions on quick passes from Roethlisberger. Johnson signed his 1 yr tender from the team earlier this offseason and will be in the mix for the 3rd and likely final regular season roster spot. Johnson is a solid blocker and has done an admirable job fighting his way onto the roster each season, despite being a late round draftee. There are no guarantees for Johnson but his abilities as a FB might be the thing that ultimately secures him for another season.
Weslye Saunders: Undrafted free agent in 2011, Saunders was able to beat the odds and make the team as the 3rd TE. He finished the season with 4 catches for 29 yds. and 1 TD. Saunders is a huge target, 6’5″ 270 lbs, with good hands and speed. His off field issues in college caused him to drop out of the traditional 7 rounds last year, otherwise many projected him as a mid round prospect. He showed flashes in limited action last year and most assumed he would take the next step as Miller’s primary backup in 2012. His 4 game suspension to start the year after mistakingly taking an NFL banned substance could be a factor in whether or not he makes the team though. With the addition of Pope and the re-signing of David Johnson, Saunders will have an uphill battle to fight. Don’t count him out completely just yet however. If the Steelers believe his can stay on the straight and narrow, they could start the year with just Miller and Pope and then get Saunders involved after week 4.
David Paulson: The Steelers second of 4 picks in the 7th round this year, Paulson is known mainly for his receiving skills. He’s a bit on the small size compared to most NFL tight ends, 6’3″ 245 lbs so it remains to be seen if he can hold up in his blocking assignments that the Steelers will need him for. If he doesn’t make the final regular season roster he could be a candidate for the practice squad.
Jamie McCoy: This is his second year with the Steelers after spending part of 2010 on the Rams practice squad before being picked up by the Steelers and ultimately being on their PS last year. He’s a bit of an underdog by most standards but you can never underestimate what a guy trying hard to make the team might be able to do. The Steelers likely won’t keep more than 1 player at this position on their practice squad so both he and Paulson could end up in a battle to stay on the team.
In the end, and really the reality just based on what we know of how the Steelers operate, the first 2 roster spots are all but locked up. Mike Tomlin will never openly admit things like this but both Heath Miller and Leonard Pope will be there in September. After that it’s really a battle to keep an eye on and see who wants it most. Johnson has the inside track at this point based on his role last year but it’s not a lock just yet. The team likely still has confidence Saunders to be effective after his suspension is over and he probably wouldn’t last on the practice squad very long.