This weekend's Championship Games highlighted two of the league’s best tight ends presently in the NFL. Kansas City Chiefs Travis Kelce and San Francisco Forty Niners George Kittle are dominant pass catchers that create instant mismatches the moment they step on the field. The full impact of their abilities has contributed greatly to their teams being on the doorstep of competing for a Super Bowl championship.
Both players possess the size, speed, and strength combination that makes them nearly unstoppable. Talents similar to former Patriots Rob Gronkowski, but both Kelce and Kittle have better agility and quickness than Gronk enjoyed. These guys give opposing defensive coordinators nightmares.
Any defender assigned the responsibility of trying to cover either individual is assured of a frustrating experience. Any defender must have the strength to maintain contact in coverage at the break, the speed to stay in close proximity, and the size to avoid being shielded from the ball or having a lob completed over their head. Needless to say, such defenders are few and far between.
Some could argue this weekend's games were decided by how productive both Kelce and Kittle were for their respected teams, and the opportunities created for their teammates by their presence on the field. Likewise, if the Titans and Packers defenses could contain both players without having to commit an extra defender, then their chances for victory would have increased greatly.
While contemplating the impact both tight ends were destined to have on this weekend's games actually brought this article to mind. Truth be told, the Pittsburgh Steelers have never had a tight end that would compare to Kelce or Kittle, but would they even know how to fully utilize the position if they had one?
Think about this statement for a moment. When you categorize the all time NFL greats at every position, including head coaches and even owners, the Pittsburgh Steelers have at least one individual that has to be in any conversation. Every position but two, offensive tackle and tight end. We will save the offensive tackle discussion for another article, and continue to focus our efforts on the tight end position.
Heath Miller is the best tight end in Steelers history, bar none. Excellent player, person, and teammate. Solid in every way, but spectacular in none. Eric Green had the physical talent to be special, but lacked the discipline and drive. That's it, the hierarchy of Steelers tight ends. Nobody warranting an all time greats discussion. Steelers tight ends have tended to be undersized linemen who have excelled as blockers, and could catch the occasion pass out of necessity. Former Steelers Larry Brown actually switched to offensive tackle after a short stint early in his career at tight end.
Any evaluation of the Steelers tight ends through out their history would lead one to believe the Steelers have never viewed the position with the same priority as some other franchises. The Steelers have focused on other skill positions instead, and the results speak for themselves.
Having just started another long torturous off season, an upgrade at the tight end position has to be near the top of any Steelers fan's wishlist. Last season's pitiful production at TE was at the bottom of the league, which makes sense considering their overall offensive ranking. While much of the blame can be attributed to the junior varsity quarterback play, the overall ability at the TE position for the Steelers is sub par.
Vance McDonald struggled mightily without Big Ben's presence on the field. He has always struggled to stay healthy and on the field, but last season his old nemesis of dropped passes raised it's ugly head once again. His production may no longer justify his payday, and the Steelers face a tough decision this off season. Nick Vannett is a unrestricted free agent, and his return is anything but certain. After those two, nobody else on the roster has done enough to warrant conversation. Upgrade needed, the sooner the better.
The Steelers have made a conscious effort to conform to modern day NFL tendencies, most recently evident in their adjustments to team building concepts toward the NFL draft and free agency. Tight end evaluation and utilization needs to be the next step forward for the organization, but any progress is sure to encounter speed bumps.
Any hope the Steelers have to return to contention next season hinges on the healthy return of Ben Roethlisberger. Therein lies a potential problem. Big Ben, for whatever reason, has never seemed entirely comfortable utilizing the TE. At least not as the primary first option. Over the years, Ben has become comfortable dumping the ball off to a RB when his first or second read isn't open, although he often does so begrudgingly. Ben doesn't display the same confidence throwing to the TE in high pressure situations, especially between the numbers.
Ben Roethlisberger has elite arm talent and has made a living on throws outside the numbers, throws only a few other elite QBs could hope to complete. The talent level of his wide receiver core through the years definitely success this approach was warranted. Ben has specialized in extending the play, resulting in huge plays down field.
Now, coming back from elbow surgery and the effects of Father Time, the frequency of such plays might be diminished. Ben could definitely benefit moving forward in this final frame of his career from an improved running game and a productive pass catching TE.
The Steelers need to adjust their talent evaluation of the position to find such a tight end, and Ben Roethlisberger will have to adjust his game moving forward to utilize the TE position to it's fullest.
The Steelers growth as an offense depends on recognizing the importance of the tight end position in the modern NFL. Too much evidence exist to deny the correlation any longer. Just watch this weekend's games, and enjoy.