Return of Steelers TE David Johnson could seal fate for ILB Sean Spence

Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

While Spence is in the middle of a miraculous recovery from a catastrophic knee injury, he still may not return to the field in 2013 thanks to the injury situation in the tight end department.

Finally returning to practice with the Pittsburgh Steelers after beginning the year on the PUP list while recovering from an ACL injury, David Johnson may start defining the timetables for other injured players in his own positional group and inside linebacker Sean Spence.

Johnson returned to practice for the first time on Wednesday, and it has yet to be seen if he will be able to push the healthy tight ends on the roster. David Paulson has left much to be desired with his blocking ability, Jamie McCoy has been playing Johnson's old role of tight end and fullback, and Michael Palmer has looked like a veteran on the line and on special teams. Nathan Overbay and Peter Tuitupou have been fighting to remain relevant with little success.

If Johnson is able to exhibit the same skills which made him a regular part of the Steelers roster prior to his injury, his existence on the roster could dictate how the team handles the injury situations of Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth.

Miller is expected to return to practice soon himself, but just how soon is yet to be determined; but he is expected to join the team in the first quarter of the season. Spaeth suffered a lisfranc injury which will most likely sideline him for at least half the season. With each team only receiving one designation for return for players on IR, the Steelers will need to decide which player to use it on - Spaeth or Spence.

Spence, once thought to have lost his career when he suffered a severe injury during the final preseason game of 2012, has been making remarkable strides in his recovery leaving many with hope for his return to the field in 2013. Unfortunately, many believed he would be the player designated for return. Now, he may be looking at another full season on IR because of Spaeth.

The team did not rush to place Spaeth on IR even though previous injuries of a similar nature stole seasons from Santonio Holmes and Maurice Jones-Drew, although Spaeth's 'lisfranc' injury was not viewed as severe. The team seems convinced Spaeth will be able to return mid-season. Considering the team's lack of quality in the tight end department, Spaeth will be viewed as more necessary than another ILB; especially with the depth provided by Stevenson Sylvester, Marshall McFadden, Vince Williams and the rest of the off-season linebacking corps.

If so, Spaeth will wind up as the player designated for return leaving no room for Spence's triumphant return in 2012. Perhaps the extra recovery time will play to the benefit of Spence considering the severity of the injury which eliminated him in the first place.

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