Replacing Heath Miller will be difficult, but salary cap relief helps Steelers
February 19, 2016 10:05 PM
Tight end Jesse James will have to step up in the wake of Heath Miller's retirement, but the Steelers may not see him as a starter in 2016.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For years, the Steelers never had to worry about the tight-end position. Heath Miller was a rock-solid, all-round player who could block as well as he could catch, a rarity now in the NFL.
But, after Miller announced his retirement Friday afternoon, the Steelers must consider using a high draft choice on a tight end or signing one in free agency.
The Steelers have two tight ends under contract — veteran Matt Spaeth and rookie Jesse James — but might not view either as starter material for the 2016 season. Spaeth, 32, is entering the final year of his contract and has endured injury problems that have forced him to miss 16 of a possible 48 games over the past three seasons.
James, a fifth-round pick out of Penn State in 2015, only played 181 offensive snaps this past season. He played well late in the season, but he still is developing as a player, especially with his run-blocking.
Finding someone like Miller in the draft in April will be difficult. With the proliferation of spread offenses in college football, the pro-style tight end has gone by the wayside.
“Tight ends and fullbacks are really like dinosaurs, they’re harder to find,” general manager Kevin Colbert said last week. “There just aren’t a lot of conventional tight ends. And some of the guys who are called tight ends on the spread-option teams are actually big guys playing in the slot and they’re really more for blocking on the perimeter, passes or runs, than they are being a traditional tight end.
“They’re a lot like the quarterbacks. It takes them a little while longer to transition to be able to play traditional tight end. If they’re of a certain size and speed and mentality, I think you can teach them to block. It just might not be in the first month of training camp.”
The consensus No. 1 tight end in the draft is Hunter Henry from Arkansas. He is projected as a late first-round pick and could be available when the Steelers select with the No. 25 overall pick. Austin Hooper of Stanford is considered next in line and is projected as a second-round pick.
“They spend most of their time detached from line, make the first guy miss and they have good size,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock told the Post-Gazette earlier this week. “They create mismatches in the middle of field. In the pass-first NFL, their skills are valued.”
Other analysts have strong opinions on Henry and believe he is the one college tight end who can step in and be a starter as a rookie.
“Henry has rare blocking talent to go along with his ability as a pass-catcher,” wrote draft analyst Lance Zierlein on NFL.com. “Henry could step in tomorrow and take over a starting spot.”
If the Steelers wanted to address tight end in free agency there are a few options. Among the top available free agents still in their 20s are Dwayne Allen of the Indianapolis Colts; Jermaine Gresham, formerly of the Cincinnati Bengals and Arizona Cardinals; and Andrew Quarless of the Green Bay Packers.
As much as Miller’s departure might hurt the Steelers in the short term, it did create some much-needed salary-cap room. Miller was scheduled to count $7.81 million against the 2016 salary cap, and the Steelers now can use those funds to address other needs.
Gerry Dulac contributed. Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.
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