Training Camp Preview and Roster Projections: Tight Ends

Because sooner or later, we’ll all be trying to predict the final 53…

Likely Roster Spots: 3

Projected Starter: Heath Miller

Key Training Camp Battles: D.J. Johnson vs. Sean McHugh for No. 3 TE spot. Note: Both Johnson and McHugh can be on the final roster if one wins the No. 1 FB job.

Projected for 53-Man Roster: (3) Miller, Matt Spaeth, Johnson

Analysis: Steeler fans have long recognized Heath Miller as arguably the best all-around, tight end in the NFL.

However, midway through the 2009 season, it appeared that Miller was easily en route to his first Pro Bowl despite a slew of talented AFC tight ends, as he was compiling big numbers for the first time in his career and the Stelers looked like a playoff lock.

Through just seven games of a 16-game season, Miller had 40 receptions and 4 TDs. His numbers dropped some over the remainder of the season, but he still finished with career-highs in receptions (76) and receiving yards (789) to go with six TD catches.

Those numbers were much less than the Colts’ Dallas Clark (100-1,106-10) and Charger Antonio Gates (79-1,157-8). But Miller still made his first Pro Bowl thanks to Clark’s participation in the Super Bowl. Gates is not as good in blocking as Miller and Clark is more of a hybrid receiver/tight end, so a strong case could be made that Miller is the best tight end in the AFC.

More important, Miller’s combination of excellent blocking and receiving skills makes him the ideal Steeler tight end and Pittsburgh’s best at the position since at least Eric Green in the 1990s if not ever, since tight end is one of the only positions where the Steelers have not had multiple superstars.

Miller likes to operate in the middle of the field. His numbers could go down this fall with the departure of Santonio Holmes, who liked to work the deep middle and downfield. If Antwaan Randle El wins the No. 3 WR spot, Pittsburgh will have three receiving targets (Hines Ward, Miller, El) who are most comfortable running shorter routes and none of whom are fast by any measure, with Mike Wallace then being the only weapon who can regularly stretch the field.

Matt Spaeth was an un-needed luxury third-round pick in the 2007 NFL Draft when the Steelers had much more pressing needs on both lines of scrimmage and had a solid No. 2 tight end in Jerame Tuman, who excelled as an in-line blocker. Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians reportedly pushed hard for the drafting of the 6-foot-7 Spaeth, who he argued could be an effective goal-line weapon.

Spaeth lacks upper-body strength and often gets blown backwards as an in-line blocker in short-yardage sets, which is how he is primarily used. Still, for some crazy reason, Arians insists on using Spaeth in all two tight-end sets, including obvious running downs near the end zone.

What’s worse is that Arians rarely takes advantage of Spaeth’s receiving skills, as he caught just five passes for 25 yards and 1 TD last season. In 3 years as the team’s No. 2 tight end, Spaeth has 27 career receptions for 195 yards. In other words, this was a bad draft pick, as many of us were baffled that the Steelers took a receiving tight end in the third round that spring.

Spaeth should have a spot on the Steelers’ roster, since he would become the starter if Miller went down with an injury. Ideally, though, Pittsburgh should use D.J. Johnson or Sean McHugh in two, tight-end sets on obvious rushing downs, since both are superior blockers compared to Spaeth.

But that does not appear to be an option so long as Arians remains offensive coordinator. Instead, Arians likes to use Johnson or McHugh as the fullback, since Arians does not believe in “wasting” a roster spot on a pure fullback.

My hope is that either (A) both Johnson and McHugh make the 53-man roster, allowing one to be used as a fullback and the other as a tight end together; or (B) Frank Summers emerges as a quality No. 1 fullback, allowing either Johnson or McHugh to replace Spaeth as the in-line blocking No. 2 tight end. I am not holding my breath, though, because Arians either loves Spaeth’s blocking or does not want to proven wrong on the drafting of Spaeth so early. I am not betting on the former.

If Johnson and McHugh end up battling for a single roster spot, Johnson will have youth and athleticism on his side, and thus is the favorite. McHugh, though has the superior hands, and was better on special teams in 2008 than Johnson was in 2009. It is debatable as to who is the superior lead blocker as a fullback, but Johnson is likely better on the line of scrimmage even though McHugh (6-5, 260) is built more like a traditional tight end than Johnson (6-2, 260).

However, the Steelers’ front office likes McHugh so much that they kept him on injured reserve in 2009, instead of reaching an injury settlement. My guess is that both will push hard for roster spots, in large part because they may be the two most versatile Steelers and would both aid the special-teams units.

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  • IsraelP

    Never saw much out of Spaeth and don't see the value of his roster spot, unless Heath gets hurt.

    And why does your system keep asking who I am?

  • ryan


    Not sure why the commenting system doesn't recognize you as a returning commenter. I'll look into it, but for now I'm blaming William Gay.