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Steelers Free Agents: receivers and tight ends

Let's look at the offense for a while, and see what we can see...

Justin K. Aller

In last Friday's article we had a good look at the secondary. Now let's look at the guys we hope will give fits to other teams' secondaries.

According to, the following receivers are unrestricted free agents: Plaxico Burress, Jerricho Cotchery, Emmanuel Sanders, David Johnson, and Michael Palmer. They currently have 10 wide receivers and five tight ends on the roster. Of the ten players who still are under contract to the Steelers, not a lot of them took a meaningful number of game snaps, So the Steelers have some interesting decisions to make in this category.

Since there are only half as many tight ends as wide receivers, let's make life simpler and start with them:

Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth are under contract, and almost certainly not going anywhere in 2014. Matt Spaeth is a tall target and a good blocker. Heath is HEEAATTHH. 'Nuff said. At least for the time being.

David Paulson is on a rookie contract, and my gut reaction at the present moment would be he's ripe for the cutting block. But we'll see what the numbers show presently.

David Johnson, despite being one of those players people love to hate, is someone the coaching staff really likes. He offers tremendous versatility, and can be put in as a receiver, a fullback, and is an accomplished blocker. However, he was put on IR two years in a row, never a good thing.

As for Michael Palmer, I would say "He's gone," except that I believe he played a lot of special teams, and special teams were actually vastly improved this past year. However, there is probably a younger, cheaper version of him available in the draft.

But I haven't looked at any actual numbers yet. So let's look at how these five guys did (why do I suddenly want a hamburger?) in several categories: drop percentage, pass and run blocking. I'll also compare them to the league averages, both overall and in each category.

Let's get this breaking news out of the way first—Pro Football Focus is not particularly enamored of any of last season's tight ends. But there may be more to the story. Here are the charts:


This is one of Pro Football Focus' so-called Signature Stats. Since a receiver who doesn't reliably catch what's thrown at him is limited in his usefulness, PFF came up with the so-called "drop rate." They evaluate whether they deem the ball should have been catchable, and assign drops accordingly. Since the best drop rate would be 0.00, I've expressed the percentages as a negative number so the chart reads the usual way—higher is better.

One of the things I think is interesting to track is what is happening to the league average. In this case it looks pretty much as you'd expect—on average the tight ends with the most targets (generally around 40 players each year, one per team and two for a few) drop around four or five "catchable" passes per season. (The average number of catchable passes is around 50 per player.)

It's no shock we think of Heath Miller as "Old Faithful." With the exception of 2011 he has beaten the league average, usually by a good bit. Our other four TEs are wildly inconsistent.

One of the main reasons for this is the number of targets. Heath Miller is the only player of the five listed to have received more than the minimum targets for the cut-off in each of the past six seasons. (The fewest "catchable" targets he had in this six-year period was 43, in 2010.) Conversely, the most catchable targets by any of the other players we are considering was 19, to Matt Spaeth in 2008. David Johnson and Michael Palmer both had over 10 in 2011 (13 for Johnson, 12 for Palmer.) Other than that, none of the other players have received as many as a dozen catchable targets in a season. With such a small number, the percentages get pretty skewed. For example, David Johnson was the object of five catchable targets in 2013, and caught all but one of them, but that one drop gave him a 20% drop rate.

When we look at our free agents in terms of sure-handedness, Michael Palmer looks pretty good, until you figure out that the season he had the most targets (in Atlanta) he also had a pretty bad drop rate. The other three seasons, his total catchable targets add up to 12, so he's had the ball thrown at him in a manner in which he could be expected to catch it all of 24 times in his four-year career.

Blocking. This is a biggie in Pittsburgh, particularly considering the struggles they have gone through with the health of the offensive line in the past several seasons. Here's the charts:


"Pass Blocking Efficiency" is another PFF Signature Stat, demonstrating the amount of pressure allowed on the quarterback by the blocking tight end. Sacks are weighted more heavily than pressures. Run blocking is one of the categories which goes into their overall rating.

The line which catches my eye first on these charts is the bright blue one, mainly because we see two stats with opposite tendencies. In other words, if PFF is to be believed, on average tight ends have become better pass blockers in the past six year, and on average they have become far worse at run blocking. Even taking into account the fact that the spread on the run blocking chart is greater, the difference between the 2008 average and the 2013 average is a great deal larger.

It is interesting to note that in run blocking, Heath Miller is all over the map. We tend to think of Heath as a really terrific blocker, but in truth he's pretty close to average as a pass blocker and mostly below average as a run blocker, if PFF is to be believed. 2011 was the zenith of Heath's career during the six ranked seasons, and he was well above average in both categories then. (He was ranked No. 3 overall by PFF that year.)

On the other hand, pass blocking appears to be where Michael Palmer shines. Other than his rookie season, he has been well above average. David Johnson is a well-above-average run blocker, and generally a good pass blocker. I know this is part of the reason the coaching staff really likes him. I've watched Mike Tomlin watching the sled drills at training camp, and he almost always seems to have something good to say to Johnson.

Now let's see how PFF feels about our tight ends in general:


The first chart is the actual score each man received, compared to the blue line (league average of the most-utilized players; in this ranking, about two players per team.) Personally, I am not particularly concerned about the downward trend last season for both Miller and Spaeth. Both were hampered by injuries and only played a portion of the season. Obviously if they play all of 2014 and the trend continues, that's another matter.

What's the most interesting line in the left hand chart? You there, in the back. The bright green line? Go to the head of the class! Yes, friend, David Johnson looks pretty darn good. Even though he played so little last season, he was grading out well above average. (Remember, these are cumulative scores, so he didn't have nearly as many snaps as the ranked players.) It's no wonder the coaching staff likes what they see. Now, is durability an issue? That's another matter, which we will look at in a moment.

The right-hand chart above is the PFF ranking. Again, I've expressed these as negative numbers so that when you look at the chart higher is better. Matt Spaeth was the No. 7 tight end in the league in 2012, while he was in Chicago. Other than Heath Miller at No. 3 in 2011, it is the only time any of our guys have cracked the top ten.

And note that for most of the players, most years, they weren't actually in the rankings, as they had too few snaps to make the cut-off. Heath Miller was in every season. Matt Spaeth was ranked every year but 2013; other than that, David Johnson made the cut in 2011 and David Paulson made it in 2012. The other rankings were assigned as to where they would have fallen, given their score.

So what does all of this tell us about our tight ends in general and our free agents in particular? First, as to the tight ends in general, while David Paulson has improved, unless he makes a great deal of progress over the course of the off-season it wouldn't shock me to see him cut. As noted above, I don't think Heath and Matt Spaeth are going anywhere for the moment. But I do think it is time to starting thinking seriously about the succession, as it were. Heath is not getting any younger, although he is just as handsome and as nice as ever. When the time comes to bid him farewell, I'm going to be seriously saddened. But it is inevitable, and we all have to think about this. He is 31, after all, and can't play forever.

And although the non-free agents weren't the focus of my article, it did make me wonder how long good TEs typically play, and how long they remain effective. So as a place to start I looked up the ages (during the 2013 season) of the top ten TEs (out of 64 total, two per team mostly) for 2013, according to PFF. Here's the information:

  1. Jimmy Graham (27)
  2. Rob Gronkowski (24)
  3. Jason Witten (31)
  4. Ben Hartsock (33)
  5. Jordan Reed (23)
  6. Brent Celek (28)
  7. Vernon Davis (29)
  8. Zach Ertz (23)
  9. Ladarius Green (23)
  10. Zack Miller (28)

Ben Hartsock gives me hope. Maybe Heath will keep playing for years! I do note the average age, however, is 26.9...

If you filter for each team's No. 1 TE, it looks worse:

  • Jimmy Graham (27)
  • Jason Witten (31)
  • Brent Celek (28)
  • Vernon Davis (29)
  • Zack Miller (28)
  • Martellus Bennett (26)
  • Delanie Walker (29)
  • Coby Fleener (25)
  • Mychal Rivera (23)
  • Julius Thomas (25)
  • The average age is a bit higher (27.1) but there is only one player on there over 30. It's probably unrealistic to assume Heath Miller will be an effective No. 1 for many more years. I certainly hope I'm wrong, though.

    Now, the free agents. When I look at Michael Palmer's numbers I can see why the Steelers took a flyer on him. But I don't get the impression they were ever wowed. After all, he played a remarkably small amount, given the serious problems with depth at tight end this season. David Paulson was a seventh-round pick, and he's done better than the vast majority of seventh-round picks. But if a three-year veteran couldn't get on the field ahead of a kid with one year under his belt, it doesn't say a tremendous amount for the veteran. This past season Paulson played a total of 189 snaps; Palmer played 49.

    I freely admit I'm not at all certain about special teams snaps. I don't even know where you can find stats for those. So Michael Palmer might be a special teams monster for all I know, although I don't recall hearing his name called, either good or bad. But I'm guessing they are going to let Palmer walk. Paulson is cheap. He made $390,000 last season. Palmer isn't exactly expensive, (he made $540,000,) but I can't see the team needing both.

    Michael Palmer was a UDFA in 2010. He's beat the odds, and that says a lot. But I'm guessing it's time to say farewell.

    Now, how about David Johnson? As noted, I think the thing which might give the team pause is durability. He missed the entire 2012 season with a torn ACL, sustained in a pre-season game. He was back for the first part of 2013, and then sustained a season-ending wrist injury in early October. There are two positives: they were completely different injuries, and the wrist injury wouldn't hamper him from continuing to work on his knee. But many people are concerned about a player who has serious injuries in back-to-back seasons.

    Is too much made of this? Willie Colon suffered three different injuries which were season-ending while with the Steelers—a torn Achilles in 2010, a torn triceps in 2011, and a knee injury partway through 2012. The Steelers released him, the Jets picked him up, and as far as I knew he played the whole season. However, I just checked, and although he played all 16 games, he tore his biceps in the final game against Miami. Even though this is yet a different injury, it doesn't bode well for Colon, who will be an unrestricted free agent in March. As they say, you can't make the club from the tub.

    What would I do if I were Kevin Colbert/Mike Tomlin? I really don't know. But since, unlike Colon, Johnson is further down the depth chart, and because he seems to have a great deal of upside, I would probably take a chance on him.

    Next up, the wide receivers. That article is likely to be even more speculative than this one : )