And we’re back with part 4 of the Steelers All-Time All-Rookie team, to get us through the dead zone between the draft and the preseason. Here’s how it works: I’ll include an introduction to account for some players you may expect to see, but who didn’t make the cut. Then I’ll list my picks for starters, backups, and others worth consideration — followed with a poll for Steelers Nation to weigh in.
The apologia for the sequence appears in the first article (here), but here are the ground rules:
The Ground Rules:
1 — I’m looking at the entire history of the Steelers/”Pirates.”
2 — The player must have begun his career with Pittsburgh.
3 — Only the rookie year will factor in; a great career is unnecessary.
4 — The poll and the comments section are open — have at it.
For past essays:
With that in mind, here’s part three of the mixed-multitude of the Steelers all time All Rookie team — position group by position group.
Part 4: Tight Ends
This will be the shortest article because Tight End is the least defined position we’ve looked at. In fact, tight ends aren’t really a thing (at least in Pittsburgh) until 1962 — the first year a tight end was listed on a Steelers roster. At the time, it seems like tight ends were simply big pass catchers who lined up inside (tight, instead of split outside, like a “split end,” or a step back, flanking the line, like a “flanker”). Some caught a lot of passes; some were glorified linemen. Just like today. And just like today, there’s no solid measurement for a complete player at the position. That makes TE a hard position to evaluate.
With that said, I suspect you’ll recognize most of the names you see below. Names you won’t see include Randy Grossman and Bennie Cunningham, the tight ends from the 1970s squads. The two combined for zero starts as rookies, and pulled in only 18 passes, with one touchdown, combined. I read this as evidence that neither of them contributed much to the passing game in year 1, but also that they weren’t essential as blockers in the run game (or they’d have started more).
Other familiar names that I can’t justify including: Jerame Tuman, who started no games and caught zero passes as a rookie. And Jesse James, who sat behind Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth in 2015, caught all of eight passes that year, and only even dressed in eight ball games.
Mike Mularkey (more famous now as a head coach, or as one of the Steelers offensive coordinators) was once a Steelers tight end, but his career started in Minnesota, so he’s out. Recently retired Vance McDonald had a fun couple of years (especially 2018), but started his career in San Francisco.
That leaves just a handful of rookies worth discussing. Let’s do it:
Heath Miller (2005)
15 regular season starts, 4 playoff starts on Super Bowl winner
39 catches, 459 yards, 6 touchdowns (#2, #3, #2 on Steelers, respectively)
7 catches, 107 yards, 1 touchdown in playoffs
Blocker on #5 (NFL) rushing team
NFL All-Rookie Team
Heeeeeeath! It’s hard to picture Heath Miller as a rookie. I feel like he came out of the womb as a 29 year old veteran tight end. But Miller was an immediate impact player on the Super Bowl XL champion Steelers. As a blocking tight end, Miller helped pave the way for a 2nd year nobody named Willie Parker to blast the league for 1200 yards rushing. As a receiving threat, Miller was a steady safety valve for improv magician Ben Roethlisberger, and caught passes in all three Steelers playoff wins on the road to Detroit.
And not to gild the lily, it was rookie Miller, hustling to trail the play, who ultimately brought down Colts DB Nick Harper on the season-saving tackle against Indianapolis, when Ben had famously tripped up the safety at the 40 yard line. [Oops. Author’s mistake. This was Jerame Tuman. That said, may have been the perfect tight end for school-yard magician, Ben Roethlisberger, releasing blocks and finding the open spot when Ben broke from the pocket.]
Big Ben voted for Miller for team MVP every year of the tight end’s career. That’s a good enough endoremsent for me.
Eric Green (1990)
34 receptions, 387 yards (#3 on team in each category)
7 touchdowns (#1 on Steelers, #12 in NFL)
Most TD receptions in NFL among all TEs
NFL All Rookie Team
2nd Team All-Conference (UPI)
This is the hardest starting position I’ve confronted yet — Eric Green is absolutely deserving of the top spot as well. He currently sits at #2 all time among Steelers tight ends, behind Miller, both in career accomplishments and rookie numbers. And he did it with Bubby Brister and Neil O’Donnell. Go with either and you can’t go wrong.
There are some meaningful differences between the two, however. Green was almost certainly a more dangerous target, as he led all NFL tight ends in touchdown receptions as a rookie. 1990 was the first season that Joe Walton served as offensive coordinator, and the transition was beyond clumsy. The Steelers dug a 1-3 hole to start the year, and scored ZERO offensive touchdowns in that stretch. None. Eric Green, meanwhile, nearly pulled a Le’Veon Bell — holding out through the season’s first three games, and threatening to sit out the whole year. He eventually showed up, and in his first extensive playing time (week 5), he scored the team’s first two offensive touchdowns of the whole season. The Steelers 8-4 finish was nearly enough to get them to the playoffs, but not quite. One wonders how that would have changed with Green on the field for 16 weeks.
In the end, Miller got the nod from me for his team play — the blocking and hustle. But it’s really not as wide of a gap between them as I’d have expected. Green (who played at 280lbs) was impressive in 1990, but he’d be a monster today.
Mark Bruener (2001)
26 receptions, 238 yards, 3 touchdowns (#3 on team in TDs)
Started Super Bowl XXX
Did you know there was a Steelers rookie tight end who started a Super Bowl before Heath Miller? Mark Breuner is mostly remembered today as a prototype blocking TE, but during his rookie year, the Steelers running game wasn’t actually that great, finishing 12th on the way to the team’s only Super Bowl appearance between 1979 and 2005. The defense that season was a powerhouse, while the offense was a real craps-shoot. Eric Pegram led the team in rushing, though Bam Morris was probably the best runner on the team; Neil O’Donnell and Mike Tomszak split the load at quarterback, while rookie QB Kordell Stewart did more as a wide receiver than under center. It was a little bit wild-west.
Hard to know what Breuner would have been able to do in a more stable offense. But he’s a very respectable rookie anyway.
Matt Spaeth (2007)
Five catches, but three touchdowns
Blocker in #3 rushing offense
Started as TE2 in playoff game
I did not expect to include Matt Spaeth in this list, but (a) there simply weren’t that many rookie tight ends that accomplished much in Pittsburgh, and (b) Spaeth is the best player to spotlight as a primary blocker.
By 2007, the Steelers offensive line had begun to collapse, with Jeff Hartings’ retirement and Alan Faneca playing out the thread. Meanwhile, with new offensive coordinator Bruce Ariens calling for more deep passes, it was suddenly crucial for this team to block for Big Ben and run the ball to take advantage of blitzers who want to tee-off against the franchise. Matt Spaeth wasn’t the key to that protection, but his role was almost entirely in that realm. And the result was a Division title, the #3 rushing team in football, and a team record 32 passing TDs. Matt Spaeth helped make that happen. Probably not enough to get a ticket to the All-Rookie team, but not bad at all.
John McMakin (1972)
21 catches, 277 yards, 1 touchdown (all #3 on the team)
Blocker on NFL’s #2 rushing team
Started two playoff games (including Steelers first ever win)
Pulling together lists like these inevitably introduces you to players you’ve never heard of. John McMakin is just such a player. His rookie season happened to coincide with Franco Harris’s (so there was no chance he’d be a rookie standout, even on his own team), but he seems to have been a pivotal figure on an historic Steelers squad — the first playoff winner ever. A significant figure in the passing game, and a blocker on the league’s #2 rushing team, McMakin seems like a legit player overall. Unfortunately his rookie year was the best of his career. He left Pittsburgh after Super Bowl IX, and was out of football by 1977. But he’s one of the more well rounded players on this list.
All-Rookie Tight End
This poll is closed
Stay tuned for the Offensive Line.