The Pittsburgh Steelers want their tight ends to be blockers first, and pass receivers second. Those who can do both become prevalent parts of the offense. Those who cannot still better be able to block.
David Paulson intrigued head coach Mike Tomlin with his athletic ability and football intelligence after the team drafted him with one of their four seventh-round draft picks in 2012. His most glaring weaknesses were his lack of strength and unpolished blocking skills. Despite bulking up a bit over the off-season and continuing to be an impressive receiving option, his ability to maintain a block has not improved nor impressed, and he may have just lost his spot to the player he replaced last year.
David Johnson, another former seventh-round draft pick by Pittsburgh, had spent his entire career with the Steelers playing both TE and fullback in coordinator Bruce Arians' offense. Despite the addition of Leonard Pope and his twice-former coach Todd Haley as Arians' replacement, Johnson was still performing at a high-enough level to maintain his roster spot and most likely force Paulson to the practice squad as a rookie. When Johnson tore his ACL in training camp, Paulson took his place as the third TE behind Pope and starter Heath Miller.
The team decided not to re-sign Pope for the 2013 campaign even though Miller had torn one of his own ACLs, but did sign former-Steelers Matt Spaeth and a recovering Johnson to fill the void with Paulson in Miller's absence. Unfortunately, Johnson was not completely healed and required additional surgery forcing him to begin the season on the PUP list. To make matters worse, Spaeth suffered the notorious lisfranc injury in training camp, leaving Paulson to be the starter until Miller was ready.
In three preseason games, Paulson has stood out on game film not for his exploits in the passing game, but unfortunately for his continued inability to block NFL defenders. Johnson finally rejoined the team barely a week ago, but has already passed Paulson on the depth chart.
In preparation for the first cut deadline which required team's to reduce off-season rosters to 75 players, the Steelers added LB Sean Spence to the regular season PUP list to preserve a roster spot for a healthy body. By not doing the same with Miller, it can be assumed he will be returning earlier than the Week 7 PUP restriction. With Miller locking down one of three TE roster spots, there will only be two up for grabs. Matt Spaeth continues to be listed second in line although he may miss the first half of the year as his foot heals, possibly forcing the team to place him on IR with designation for return in Week 9. The team would receive a roster exemption should Spaeth be placed on IR, but will lost the concession when Spaeth is able to return, making the battle for the third spot important, because whoever is listed fourth will be the one released to make room for Spaeth.
Through the first three games of the preseason, Paulson was listed as the third guy; but now he has fallen below Johnson. If Spaeth does return mid-season and Johnson does not disappoint, Paulson's promising career may be coming to a sudden end with no practice squad eligibility remaining.
Every remaining TE on the roster will most likely see action in the team's final preseason game against the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night. If Paulson doesn't want to become the expendable one, he will need to improve drastically or for Johnson to suffer another year-stealing injury.
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