Steelers spotlight: In a tight spot no more at tight end
March 13, 2016 12:00 AM
Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press
Rather than using an early draft pick on a tight end, the Steelers have their Heath Miller replacement in free-agent signing Ladarius Green.
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Steelers knew tight end Heath Miller had lost a step and was having trouble getting open against man coverage. And they knew they would likely have to find his replacement in the 2016 draft, something they considered even last year.
That was even before Miller announced last month he was retiring after 11 seasons with the team that drafted him in the first round in 2005. The Steelers hoped they might be able to squeeze one more season out of Miller, the team’s all-time leader in catches (592), receiving yards (6,569) and touchdowns (45) for a tight end.
At that point, it appeared to become mandatory, if not urgent, to draft Miller’s replacement, their tight end of the future.
The Steelers likely aren’t panicking.
Especially now that they signed former San Diego Chargers tight end Ladarius Green in free agency.
Green’s signing eases what could have been a problem for the Steelers: Finding a starting-capable tight end before they get to training camp.
Otherwise, their plan to find a replacement for Miller was effectively based on a leap of faith: Hoping Jesse James, their No. 3 tight end in 2015, would make a significant jump in development in his second season. And while that could happen with James, who played at South Allegheny High School and Penn State, that might be expecting a little too much.
James has the size (6 feet 7, 261 pounds) and has shown the ability to catch the ball, even against man coverage. But he has never been viewed as anything more than a No. 2 tight end, which is what he will be with the addition of Green, a player who played in the shadow of Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates with the Chargers.
There is also similar hope that Xavier Grimble, a big (6-4, 261) and fast tight end who spent last season on the practice squad, can make the same kind of developmental jump. Grimble, who played at Southern California, was impressive at times in practice with his pass-catching ability down the seams.
“We liked what he did, so he’ll be in the mix,” general manager Kevin Colbert said.
Actually, a bigger question is whether the Steelers can wrangle another year out of backup Matt Spaeth, who enters his 10th NFL season and is coming off yet another minor knee surgery. Spaeth misses a lot of practice time because of nagging injuries, but is a solid blocker and the coaches like his calming, veteran presence, especially with Miller gone.
“Knowing that Heath was going into Year 11 this year and how much longer he can go, we felt Jesse was someone we could add and develop over time so that maybe he can be ready when Heath steps away, not knowing exactly when Heath would step away,” Colbert said at the NFL combine two weeks ago. “Now you have a hole, you’re missing a starter and Matt Spaeth is coming off a minor knee surgery.”
Enter Green, a 6-6, 250-pound pass-catching tight end the Steelers have liked since he visited the South Side for a pre-draft interview in 2012.
Colbert said the Steelers will add at least one more tight end to the roster and have five or six heading to training camp. That’s why it won’t be a surprise if the Steelers still shop for a tight end in the draft, even though the immediate urgency would appear to be diminished.
Colbert said that player does not necessarily have to be a pass-catcher because the Steelers already have so many weapons on offense. That didn’t stop them from signing Green, who is more receiver than blocker.
“We have all of our weapons available to us,” Colbert said. “Heath was the exception because he was Heath Miller and he was a big part of that. Without a Heath Miller, you still have Antonio Brown, you still have Le’Veon Bell, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant. So, that tight end, I don’t know how big of a part they will be. It depends on their abilities and their ability to contribute within our group. They might contribute more on another team than they would with us, because we have some other weapons available.”
The draft does not have a lot of tight ends — Colbert said they are like “dinosaurs” because they are so hard to find in collegiate spread offenses — but there are a couple at the top who have a chance to go in the first round. Both are considered pass-catchers: Hunter Henry of Arkansas and Austin Hooper of Stanford. The best combo tight end in the draft — who can block and catch with equal aplomb — is Ohio State’s Nick Vannett, who was overshadowed among all the offensive talent in Columbus.
However, Henry and Hooper insist they can be solid in-line blockers, something that might be of more importance to the Steelers than catching the ball.
“I’m going to bring a dual-threat tight end that’s going to put his head in there in the run game. I’m going to block,” Henry (6-5, 250) said at the combine. “I did that in college consistently. And I’m going to create a mismatch in the passing game.”
Henry is expected to be the first tight end selected and could go in the first round. Hooper, another in what is becoming a long line of Stanford tight ends in the NFL, is likely to be a second-round pick — which is where the Steelers are more likely to start considering taking a tight end. He wants people to know he can do more than just catch the ball, which he did in Stanford’s pro-style offense.
“I grew up playing defensive line my whole life until I came to college, so the physical side of the game of football isn’t something that scares me in the slightest,” said Hooper, who met with the Steelers at the combine. “I feel confident with my abilities and hopefully a team does, too.”
Vannett is 6-6, 257 pounds with 34¼-inch arm length and 10-inch hands. He played in 53 games at Ohio State and had 55 catches, 585 yards and 6 touchdowns. He has been called “Baby Gronk” because of his size and frame similarity to Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots.
“I’m going to do my best to keep that going because that’s a hell of a comparison,” Vannett said. “He can go down the field vertically and create mismatches and make a play in the pass game, as well as block an in-line [defensive end]. There’s not much he can’t do. That’s who I want to be. I’m not to that point yet, but I’m working to get to his level.”
How they were built: Steelers tight ends
Year acquired: 2016 UFA
Signed: Through 2019
Year acquired: 2015 draft , fifth round
School: Penn State
Signed: Through 2018
Year acquired: 2013 UFA
Signed: Through 2016
Year acquired: 2015 FA
Signed: Through 2016
Draft prospects (as rated by nfldraftscout.com)
1. Hunter Henry, Arkansas Jr.
2. Austin Hooper, Stanford, Jr.
3. Nick Vannett, Ohio State Sr.
4. Jerell Adams, South Carolina Sr.
5. Henry Krieger Coble, Iowa Sr.
6. Tyler Higbee, Western Kentucky Sr.
March 20-23: Annual league meeting, Boca Raton, Fla.
April 22: Deadline for restricted free agents to sign offer sheets.
April 28-30: NFL draft, Chicago.
May 23-25: Spring league meeting, Charlotte, N.C.
Aug. 7: Hall of Fame game, Green Bay Packers vs. Indianapolis Colts, Canton, Ohio.
Sept. 8: Likely regular-season opener featuring the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.
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