The National Football League is a copycat league plain and simple. If teams have success throwing the ball then other franchises take notice. If the 3-4 defense is more productive than the 4-3, teams make changes.
The tight end position is no exception. Once a spot reserved for men who were nothing more than extra offensive tackles who caught 30-40 balls per season, they are now athletic, speedy guys who can now change games with their abilities to stretch defenses and catch balls in traffic. Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates shattered barriers and guys like Dallas Clark, Vernon Davis and Rob Gronkowski are reaping the benefits.
For the Pittsburgh Steelers, the tight end position has never been one of overly huge production but with the drafting of Heath Miller in 2005 that started to change. As we continue with our Training Camp Preview of Roster Throwdowns, we look to the tight ends in this edition.
With the hiring of Todd Haley as the offensive coordinator, the tight ends will be asked to do different things than in the past and this will be noticeable from the get-go. Let’s take a look at guys fighting for a roster spot.
Heath Miller - Perhaps the most impressive thing about Miller is his durability as the big man from Virginia had missed only four games in his career. Miller comes off a season in which he caught 51 passes but just two of those for touchdowns.
I look for Miller to thrive in Todd Haley’s offense and I also believe those touchdown numbers will increase to as many as seven or eight as the team focuses on better Red Zone efficiency. Miller is the unquestioned starter who will again provide solid blocking and will look to build his already impressive resume.
Leonard Pope - When the Steelers signed free agent Pope in the offseason, my first thought was this was just a ‘body’ to fill a spot where the team could be depleted in the first four games (due to Wes Saunders suspension, more on that later). Pope does come with a couple of more assets however than I originally thought.
He has been in the Haley system before and knows the offense and terminology which could be a tremendous asset to fellow offensive players. At 6’8″, he immediately becomes a guy who could be a valuable short yardage and Red Zone target. Pope comes off a career high in catches although 25 may seem pedestrian by tight end standards.
I look for Pope to become a valuable 2nd tight end in 2012 as Haley looks to run the ball more effectively. He will be a solid, if not overly athletic contributor in the two tight end sets.
Wes Saunders - Saunders comes off of a rookie campaign in which his playing time seemed to increase very gradually throughout the year. He showed his potential with an athletic, tip-toe catch for a touchdown in a narrow win over Kansas City, but this was one of only four catches on the season.
Saunders was troubled by off field issues while at South Carolina and then was suspended during this off-season for testing positive in the league’s banned substances test. To be fair, he tested positive for Adderall which is a prescription medication used to treat ADD and ADHD among other things. Regardless, Saunders will miss the first four games of the season.
There’s no question the Steelers like Saunders and see tremendous potential in him or they may have already cut him. Once he returns, he’ll need to prove he can become a more consistent blocker and show that he can get open quicker in the NFL.
Remaining Options - With the move of former tight end /H-Back David Johnson to what appears to be a full-time fullback position for 2012, this may give the Steelers some ‘in-game’ flexibility should they choose to go with just two tight ends on the roster. Should one go down with an injury, Johnson could certainly fill the void on a limited basis for that game.
Should the Steelers decided to go with three tight ends on the 53-man roster, they a couple of choices. The first is 2012 7th round draft pick David Paulson of Oregon and Jamie McCoy who spent last season on the practice squad. In his time at Texas A&M, McCoy saw some action at fullback as well carrying the ball about 20 times total. Could he be the H-back type that Haley seems to like? Maybe, but if anyone is going to fill in for Saunders during his suspension I believe it will be Paulson. Playing in an up-tempo offense that relied on speed, Paulson was a solid contributor blocking and catching the ball. He’ll need to get his weight up from his 245lb range he currently has, but I think he has some potential.
Three Tight Ends: Miller, Pope, Saunders (after 4-game suspension) Paulson during this time.
Two Tight Ends: Miller and Pope with FB David Johnson as a potential safety valve.