At its best, the tight end position combines the hands of a wide receiver with the strength and brute force of an offensive lineman. Increasingly, however, NFL teams are opting for tight ends who function more as glorified-- and large-- wide receivers. The Steelers have resisted this particular trend the way I wish I had resisted acid washed jeans, fingerless gloves, and super-high ponytails in the 80's.
What do the Steelers have going for them at tight end, and what sort of personnel do they have on the depth chart?
If you just said, "Huh?" Let me introduce you to the Steelers tight ends coach. He played guard at Alabama State and then transitioned into a career as an offensive line coach for Enterprise High School in Alabama. From there, he coached the O-line at Auburn for over a decade, and then got a job as a tight ends coach for the New York Giants and then the Atlanta Falcons. He's been the Steelers tight ends coach since 2004 when he replaced Ken Whisenhunt after his promotion to offensive coordinator. Daniel's background as both an offensive lineman and O-line coach could explain the Steelers preference for blocking tight ends.
And, incidentally, apparently Daniel is an all-around great guy and universally loved by players. More than one non-tight-end player has told me of their deep respect for Daniel and their appreciation for his affection and care towards all players, not just the tight ends.
Heaaaaath! The man's sustained his fair share of concussions and other injuries, but manages to be a consistent producer in terms of both receptions and blocking. In fact, 2014 was one of his more productive seasons in terms of total yardage. With Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton, and Le'Veon Bell all part of Ben Roethlisberger's arsenal, tight ends have accounted for a smaller percentage of overall receptions in recent years. Most of Miller's 2014 761 yards were tallied off of hitch routes, which are very compatible with Todd Haley's love for screen passes.
Miller embraces the versatility of his position, telling Chris Adamski of the Tribune-Review, "I think the fun thing about tight end is that you're asked to do a lot of different stuff, so as a group we're all in doing whatever we can to help the team win. We know our coach is going to play to our strengths and we just buy into whatever we're asked." Miller is one of the best tight ends in the league when it comes to blocking.
Entering his ninth season, Spaeth is another tight end who excels at blocking. Unlike Miller, he is not a frequent target for receptions, adding up only 33 yards and one touchdown in 2014. Signed to a two-year contract this past March, Spaeth said, "I think of PIttsburgh as home now. This organization is the best in the world, and I am just happy to be back."
Jesse James was picked up in the fifth round of this year's draft. Despite his draft position, as soon as he became a Steeler there was buzz that he could be heir-apparent to Heath Miller. Huge shoes to fill for a fifth-round draft pick. Really outlandish expectations. Even if expectations had been lower, however, the rookie out of Penn State would have disappointed during his first NFL game against Minnesota, dropping two easy passes, one of which would have been for a sure-touchdown. (That was the play C.J. Goodwin was wide open in the end zone signaling to Landry Jones frantically, but to no avail.) James has also been seen on special teams. It's clear he has a long way to go before he's ready for prime time, but he's not worth giving up on yet.
Clear is a rookie out of Texas A&M picked up as an UDFA. His draft report indicates his strengths rest in his ability to set the edge, sustain run blocks, and contribute to special teams. What? Did someone say special teams? If Clear can prove himself to be an asset for that unit, that could give him an edge.
After several impressive plays during training camp, Clear was unable to play in the preseason game against the Jaguars. The reason? He had minor surgery on his knee to remove a bone chip, an injury he says happened during an incredibly rapid growth spurt right before eighth grade when he shot up from 5'8" to 6'5".
Though Clear was primarily known for his prowess as a blocker, he caught a reception for four yards during the Hall of Fame game and had several impressive completions in Latrobe.
A new addition to the team, Hamilton was claimed off of waivers from the Cowboys two weeks ago after TE Rob Blanchflower was released. Ray Hamilton went undrafted out of Iowa, and the most comprehensive information about him on the Internet can be found on the Black Heart Gold Pants blog here on SB Nation in an article that begins,"Congratulations! You've just made the wonderful decision to sign Ray Hamilton! Like most new Hamilton owners, you're no doubt filled with questions about your new family member. We here at BHGP will try our best to answer any questions you might have." It's worth a read if you care to learn more about this new prospect.
Here's a quick rundown: He's used to wearing black and gold. He is a blocking tight end (see a pattern here?). He also caught a few passes in college- 29 for 305 yards with three touchdowns his senior year.
Johnson has played both fullback-- where he describes his running style as "not real fancy"-- and tight end during his three seasons with the Steelers. This year at training camp he has been taking a lot of reps at TE and he worked out with the tight ends and coach Daniel last season.
Though small for a tight end-- he is just 6'2" and 238 pounds- he is a reliable and steadily-improving blocker. He attributed his success last season to coach Daniel saying via Steelers.com, "I think moving to Coach Daniel's room was probably one of the best things I could do for my career. My blocking improved tremendously... If I follow in (Miller & Spaeth's) footsteps with the guidance of Coach Daniel I will be fine."