Even with the four-game suspension doled out to TE Weslye Saunders for failure of the league's substance abuse policy, the Pittsburgh Steelers boast one of the league's deeper and more versatile tight ends group.
The question is how will all of them meld together, and which roles might they be playing?
Outside of TE Heath Miller, how is this all going to work?
Miller is one of the game's best all-around tight ends, a characteristic that seems to be dropping in value, in the eyes of many, due to the influx of receivers being moved in-line. Saints TE Jimmy Graham is among the worst blockers at his position, but his gawdy receiving numbers landed him in the Pro Bowl in 2011. Don't expect those kinds of numbers from Miller, or any Steelers tight end, but they certainly can improve on their 67 combined receptions (Miller 51, David Johnson 12, Saunders 4).
Under offensive coordinator Todd Haley, the Steelers will still likely utilize 2-TE formations, but oftentimes that extra tight end will come in the form of an H-back - a combination of a tight end and a fullback. The H-back is frequently in motion, and can be used as a lead blocker, a short-route receiver and an edge protector. Johnson was utilized in this capacity fairly often last year, and he will likely man that spot again.
Free agent signee Leonard Pope has played this role for Haley in both Arizona and Kansas City. While his pricetag is amenable, he may end up serving essentially as a body to help the other tight ends, and the rest of the offense, learn Haley's structure, and to play in spot duty while Saunders serves his suspension.
What is Saunders' situation?
While under suspension, he is technically exempt from the roster. The Steelers haven't released him and he's free to participate with the team during training camp and preseason. When the regular season starts, Saunders can have no access to the team or its facilities. Upon his return, the Steelers will need to clear room on the 53-man roster if they wish to keep him.
Given the amount of snaps he was taking toward the end of the season, it's likely they'll keep him around after his suspension. While it wouldn't be unheard of for them to keep a fourth tight end, it seems more likely either Johnson (playing out his 1-year restricted free agency deal) or Pope (also a 1-year deal) will be the ax.
Saunders showed enough in his route running to suggest he could be an effective receiving weapon, although his blocking, not unexpectedly, could still use some work. Entering his second season, and previously undrafted, Saunders has already repaid the team's initial investment, and as soon as he gets out of the doghouse because of his suspension (speculation suggested it was a positive test for ADHD medication for which he had a prescription, but failed to disclose it to the league), he'll likely continue his upward swing in the depth chart.
Will we see the tight end utilized more in the red zone?
Seeing any position used more effectively in the red zone would be a welcome change, after finishing just south of the middle of the pack at 50.91 percent of red zone trips resulting in touchdowns in 2011. Of the team's 21 touchdown receptions, four of them came from tight ends. The theory is taller, bigger bodies moving off play-action within the red zone can be a quarterback's favorite throw. To do that, a team must run the ball consistently to show the threat of the run before it can sell a play-action pass. Pittsburgh simply didn't run consistently (in frequency and quality) in 2011.
If they are to employ the tight end more in receiving, they'll have to earn it off the speed of the running backs. Incidentally, though, Haley's Chiefs finished dead last in the NFL in red zone scoring at 33.33 percent. They were 8th in the NFL in 2010 though (59.62 percent).
Does Wes Lyons have any better of a chance of making the team as a tight end than he did a wide receiver?
I don't think he really does. While it would be fun to brag out the Steelers' NBA front court of tight ends (Pope is 6-foot-9, Lyons is 6-foot-8, Miller is 6-foot-5), Lyons' best bet is to make the practice squad, and continue to learn the position. What he represents, though, is a breath of fresh air and offensive ingenuity, two things Haley brings to the franchise that's been led offensively by Bruce Arians since 2007. Finding more creative ways to create mis-matches is Haley's trademark, and the possible development of Lyons is, if nothing else, at least a sign he's willing to think outside the box.
That and a buck fifty will get you a cup of coffee and a Snickers, but the mentality could spring out other places this upcoming year.