We resume our tour of the Pittsburgh Steelers roster and the positional battles that should delineate this year's training camp in Latrobe by discussing the situation at tight end. It's quite an interesting one actually, as at the present moment, it's not at all clear what the organization intends to do past this season. Let's take a closer look.
Many Steelers fans have wondered why Heath Miller has not been more prominently involved in the offense since being drafted out of the University of Virginia in the 1st Round of the 2005 Draft. Miller has certainly been featured more than his predecessors at the position in Pittsburgh, but for a guy with such good hands and solid route-running ability, it's sometimes frustrating and perplexing that he's yet to catch 50 balls in a single season. I suppose as Jim Wexell told me and the site here last summer, there's only so many balls to go around.
Here's the deal though with Miller - and really, it's quite a fascinating development that's very much worthy of keeping an eye on and discussing. As a result of the pending labor dispute in the National Football League between the owners and the Players Association, Miller's free agent status is suddenly in question. Prior to the expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, players became unrestricted free agents after accruing four years of service. Miller, who is set to hit the market after the 2009 season, will have accrued five years of service by then. However, one of the provisions of the CBAs expiration is that players must not have six years of service before becoming unrestricted free agents. Thus, if no new deal is brokered in time, Miller would be a restricted free agent in 2010.
Not aware of that? Don't sweat it. Neither was Mr. Miller.
This is one of the reasons that a new CBA will probably be worked out sooner rather than later and why it's probably unlikely that there will be a strike - or that it will ever even get close to that, for that matter. Players don't want to have to wait six years to become unrestricted free agents for obvious reasons. On the other hand, owners do not want an uncapped NFL - at least most owners not named Jerry Jones.
Anyway, as it relates to Heath Miller - I think the possibility that he would be restricted rather than unrestricted is more than enough reason for the Steelers to wait things out and not extend Miller sooner than they have to. If I had to guess, I'd say it ain't happening this offseason.
That's just speculation from me of course, but the incentives seem to be there for the organization to sit on their hands and wait for the dust to settle a bit before deciding on what to do with Heath Miller in particular. Sorry folks who are eager to see him be the next guy re-upped.
Coincidentally, Pittsburgh's #2 tight end, Matt Spaeth, is also set to be a restricted free agent at the end of this season. Fans here on BTSC have debated Spaeth's abilities as a blocking tight end; others, including Mike Tomlin himself in 2007, have questioned Spaeth's toughness. To his credit, Spaeth has done a fairly solid job as a pass-catching tight end when his number has been called. Not outstanding, but solid enough. Spaeth had consecutive games with 6 catches in relief of Miller during Weeks 10 and 11 last year.
It's hard to say with any sort of confidence what the future might hold for Spaeth here in Pittsburgh. For me, that's because Miller's situation is vastly more complicated than most might realize. If Miller were in fact extended before hitting the open market, perhaps it's possible that Spaeth too is re-signed after this coming season. Obviously teams around the league aren't going to be willing to part ways with draft picks to acquire Spaeth, so it's likely that he could be retained at a very reasonable price. It might not make sense though to even give him a tender offer if 7th round rookie TE David Johnson proves anything at all this year, even on the Practice Squad. Johnson will be competing with hybrid TE/H-Back Sean McHugh for a very specialized roster spot - one that requires more blocking in certain packages than anything else. McHugh was solid last season in limited duty from his H-Back role. I don't think it would take too much for Johnson to dethrone him however, be it in 2009 or 2010. Then again, if Spaeth or Miller aren't in the organization's plans past this year, and Johnson is instead the guy they've penciled in at the #2 TE position, then perhaps McHugh's job is in less jeopardy.
Whew. Deep breath. Who knows how it will shake out, but from where I'm sitting, the tight end situation in Pittsburgh is a classic example of how the economics and governance structure of the NFL has the potential to supersede cut-and-dry talent evaluation.
-Blitz- (Michael B.)