If you’re compiling a list of Steelers pre-draft needs (and I’m willing to bet that you are) you’re not likely to put tight end anywhere near the top.
Heath Miller is one of the best all-around players at the position in the NFL (despite being snubbed by the folks over at ESPN in their positional power rankings), is still in the prime of his career and isn’t likely to be going anywhere anytime soon. Combine that with the issue of depth and talent along the offensive line and at cornerback, along with a defensive line that’s getting to be a little long in the tooth and tight end probably doesn’t strike you as something that’s in dire need of addressing. And, truth be told, it’s probably not.
Still, I tend to be very liberal with my approach to the draft. I want to see talent and players that can make a long, lasting impact, regardless of position. In other words: don’t take a cornerback just to say you addressed the need; if that player doesn’t have a grade that justifies his selection at that spot, look somewhere else.
Could that “somewhere else” be another tight end that can make an impact in the passing game?
Under offensive coordinator Bruce Arians the Steelers utilize quite a few two-and-three tight end sets. For example, 437 of the Steelers’ 994 offensive plays (or about 44 percent) in 2010 featured multiple tight ends, up slightly from the 42 percent (408 of 1,014 offensive plays) they used in 2009. The most common combination used Miller and Matt Spaeth, while there were also variations that included Miller and David Johnson and Johnson and Spaeth, depending on the situation — down and distance, injuries, etc.
Here’s a quick look at the “usage” of each tight end in 2010 in the passing game: how many plays there were on the field for and how many times a pass was thrown in their direction…
Heath Miller: 781 plays, 67 passes (42 catches)
Matt Spaeth: 444 plays, 19 passes (9 catches)
David Johnson: 266 plays, 6 passes (4 catches)
To the surprise of no one Miller is the player that gets thrown to the most, while Spaeth and Johnson are essentially an extra offensive lineman when they step on the field. In two years with the team Johnson, who looks to be a fine blocker and even somewhat useful as a fullback, has had just 10 passes thrown in his direction. Over the past two years Spaeth (who JJ has often applauded for his improvement as a blocker) has been targeted on 26 passes (19 in 2010, 7 in 2009) and has struggled to consistently make catches.
If you’re going to use that many formations that include multiple tight ends, doesn’t it make at least some amount of sense to have more than one that can actually be a viable option in the passing game? If you’re an opposing defensive coordinator and the Steelers roll out a formation with Miller and Spaeth, which one is going to catch your attention in the passing game? Yeah, it’s Miller. But throw another guy in there that can hurt you down field, and it suddenly makes things a little more difficult to defend.
Looking around the NFL there are a number of teams that have used multiple tight ends to their advantage in the passing game, including Dallas (Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett), New England (Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski) and New Orleans (Jeremy Shockey, David Thomas and Jimmy Graham). Even Indianapolis has Dallas Clark and Jacob Tamme; though, Tamme was never used much until this year when Clark was injured.
The Steelers haven’t been afraid to use picks on tight ends in recent years, selecting five since 2004, including late-round picks Johnson (seventh round in ’09), Matt Kranchick (sixth round in ’04) and Charles Davis (fifth round in ’06), along with ” day one” guys Miller (first round in ’05) and Spaeth (third round in ’07).
It’s becoming more of a passing league, both with the style of play and the rules and the way they’re starting to be enforced. And to go back to something Mike Tomlin said during the 2008 draft: “There are two schools of thought to protect a quarterback … You can get linemen or you can get him weapons – people that people have to account for.”
Is adding another weapon, and a player that could help complement Miller at the tight end position in the passing game, something to consider? I’m not expecting them (or asking them) to go tight end with the 31st pick in the first round, but I wouldn’t mind seeing them use an early pick on the position. It would be bold, perhaps unexpected, and maybe even a little crazy. And that’s kind of what I like about it.
Here’s a look at some of the top prospects at the position…
Lance Kendricks, Wisconsin
Julius Thomas, Portland State
Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame
D.J. Williams, Arkansas