Continuing a year BTSC tradition, we're going to take a crack at breaking down the state of the Pittsburgh Steelers roster over the month or two. The objective is to take a look back at the most recent play by position, the ages and contract status of the relevant players at that position, and then make some reasonable evaluations of what the Steelers front office may do moving forward in the immediate and intermediate future. Let's start it out with a look at the tight position:
Age and 2009 Stats: 27 years old (10/22/82) - 76 receptions, 789 yards (10.4 avg) and six touchdowns
Contract Status: Signed through 2014
2009 Analysis: For several years one of the biggest question marks has been why Miller wasn't a bigger part of the offense but in 2009 he was finally able to show how effective he could as a featured receiver. He not only set career highs in both yards and receptions but he also led the entire league (both wide receivers and tight ends) with a 78% catch rate (minimum 50 targets for WR's and 25 targets for TE's). Miller and Ben Roethlisberger have developed quite a bit of chemistry over the past several years and it really seems like Ben knows exactly where his big tight end will be once the pocket breaks down.
2010 Outlook: Miller is entering the prime of his career and there's no reason to expect a dropoff in his production anytime soon. His well rounded abilities mean that he rarely has to come off the field, only four players on the offensive side of the ball took more snaps than him, and he can be an asset in the running game as well as the passing game. If there's one thing that could be improved upon in 2010, it's how Miller is used in the passing game though. It seemed like too often he would start a play as a blocker and then slide off his man once Ben started scrambling. While this led to quite a few completed passes, most of his passes were for relatively short yardage (lowest yards per catch of his career). In total 71% of his completions were thrown at ten yards or less and he actually caught twice as many passes behind the line of scrimmage (14) than he caught at eleven yards or more (7).
Age and 2009 Stats: 26 years old (11/24/83) - five receptions for 25 yards (5.0 avg) and one touchdown
Contract Status: Restricted Free Agent
2009 Analysis: Spaeth, even by his standards, had a disapointing season in 2009 and Miller's career year didn't help him much either. With Miller clearly the better receiving tight end, Spaeth's role has become that of a blocking tight end and he's clearly struggling with the assignment. His height and lack of physicality have prohibited him from becoming even an average blocker but at eventually he'll have to improve at the point of attack if he wants to remain on this roster.
2010 Outlook: Spaeth is certainly entering, or might already be at, a make or break point in his career. Coming out of college he was billed as a consistent blocker and reciever but through three seasons he's failed to establish himself in either category. Bruce Arians likes carrying, and using, three tight ends so it's probably to early to say his spot on the roster is in jeopardy but Spaeth will have improve, especially as a blocker, this off season.
Age and 2009 Stats: 22 years old (8/26/87) - two receptions for nine yards (4.5 avg)
Contract Status: Signed through 2011
2009 Analysis: Johnson assumed McHugh's H-back role when he went down with an injury before the season and performed rather well for a seventh round rookie. He was a virtual non factor in the passing game but his in-line blocking seemingly improved every game. His ability to line up in the backfield, as well as tight end, allowed Johnson to receive quite a bit of playing time for a rookie. Overall it was a very productive, workmanlike season for the young tight end/full back.
2010 Outlook: It'll be interesting to see what 2010 holds for Johnson. Some think he could ascend to the second tight spot while others wonder if his role will actually shrink when McHugh returns from injury. Given his age and extremely low cap number, it's a safe bet to say that he'll be on the squad next year and his role will probably be determined by the play of those around him. While he doesn't offer much from a passing game perspective, he might just be the best blocking tight end on the roster.
Age and 2009 Stats: 27 years old (5/27/82) - No stats, placed on IR before the season started
Contract Status: Signed through 2011
2009 Analysis: McHugh's season ended in early September with a knee injury.
2010 Outlook: Just like with Johnson, McHugh could be in for an interesting 2010 considering that his role in this offense has been filled by a player who is younger and cheaper. That's normally a lethal combination but McHugh is a very useable pawn in an offensive scheme that really values versatility.
The Steelers have the advantage of having one of the most complete tight ends in the league and a decent amount of depth behind him. Other than the fact that Heath Miller will start, and of course play an important role in every game that he's healthy, this position could go many different ways. They could in theory keep all four guys considering Johnson and McHugh are versatile enough to play both tight end and full back. Speath is the only true tight end behind Miller but he's also the worst blocker, which could put his job in jeopardy. One of the variables the staff will have to consider though is if Johnson or McHugh could be a receiving threat if anything were to happen to Miller during the season. It's also possible that Johnson and McHugh are fighting for one spot and they'll compete as such throughout training camp and the preseason.
About that only scenario that seems unlikely is adding another body to the mix, either through free agency or the draft, at least not one of any significance. I guess a late round pick on a tight who might eventually become Miller's primary backup wouldn't be a total shocker but considering all the other holes on this team, you'd have to that adding a developmental tight end is pretty low on the priority list.