Tight end was a position of approaching need for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Heath Miller completed his eleventh season in 2015, ad number-two tight end Matt Spaeth is no spring chicken, either. We all knew Spaeth was not the heir apparent to Miller, and we knew Miller's twilight was upon us.
We had no idea he would flip the switch so soon, or so abruptly, ending his NFL career the same way he played it: quietly, without fanfare, deferring praise and accolades.
The team drafted Jesse James from Penn State in 2015, and he showed toward the end of the season that he could play the position. While he still has yet to polish his blocking, he's an excellent receiver with good size. He looked poised to take over the top spot at the position. We just all figured it would be in 2017, not 2016.
Miller's sudden departure has left a gaping hole at a position that was expected to be addressed this off-season anyway. More than a few have speculated the Steelers might draft Hunter Henry from Arkansas with the 25th overall pick. But the Steelers just might have been gifted a way out of that pick becoming less of a luxury and more of a necessity: within minutes of Miller's retirement making headlines, the Rams announced they had parted ways with three veteran players, including tight end Jared Cook.
A third-round draft pick in 2009, Cook spent his first four years with the Tennessee Titans. He then made his way to the Rams, where he caught 51, 52 and 39 passes in three years. No one can really blame the decrease in production in 2015 on Cook, either, considering the mess the Rams faced at quarterback.
The similarities to Miller are striking. Both are 6'-5" and weight right around 255 pounds. Both have been significant contributors to their teams, usually pulling in 35 to 55 catches per year and about 35 to 50 yards per game. Miller was the better blocker, while Cook has slightly better hands and has the athleticism to do some things in the passing game that Miller could not.
Of all the free-agent tight ends available, Cook figures to provide the best combination of age, skill and affordability. His slightly down year in 2015 may depress his value a bit, and other big name tight ends are available for teams looking for a stop-gap solution: Marcedes Lewis and Ben Watson are still serviceable but are into their 30s. Jermaine Gresham may cost more than the Steelers want to pay, and Coby Fleener has underwhelmed. The sudden -- and very unexpected -- addition of Cook to those ranks changes everything.
The best part is that he was released outright, which means the Steelers -- or any other team, for that matter -- won't need to wait until free agency opens to sign him. And given that he played for two regular backmarkers in Tennessee and St. Louis/Los Angeles, the chance to play for the best offense in football could be the enticement to push him over the top.
Losing Miller to retirement is a tough blow to the Steelers, but adding a piece like Cook could minimize the sting. At the very least, there is no reason to not at least bring him in for a visit.