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2015 Free Agency: Finding the next Heath Miller

One of the most beloved players in franchise history turns 33 next season, and the team desperately needs to get younger.

Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers offense seems set on delivering many successful seasons in the near future.  A franchise quarterback, elite talents at wide receiver and running back and one of the league's better offensive lines point to the offensive side of the ball doing to heavy lifting until the defense can catch up, a process which could take several years.

At tight end, Pittsburgh has one of the most consistent sets of hands in the league in Heath Miller, his ability as a sure-handed possession receiver should be dwarfed by his abilities as a blocker.

Miller had a good 2014 season, catching 66 passes for 761 yards and three touchdowns, all figures which furthered his standing as the franchise's top tight end, and most importantly, he played more downs than any tight end in the league last season, remaining on the field for 1,103 offensive snaps, according to Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The problem is Miller turns 33 in October and the Steelers don't have many other options at tight end.  Miller, clearly, will still be able to produce, but injecting youth into the tight end position could prove to be an important factor.  Even worse, finding the "next Heath Miller", obvious as it is to say, could wind up being a hopeless endeavor.

The "best" tight ends in the NFL, Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, and Julius Thomas are all dynamic pass catchers whose athleticism turns them into a wide-receiving hybrid capable of overwhelming smaller or slower defenders.  In fact, the league seems to be in the process of a tight end revolution, as the vertical threat tight end is turning into the must-have position for every offense.  Players like Heath Miller and Jason Witten, sure-handed pass catchers that earn most of their paychecks by serving time in the trenches seem to be a dying breed.

The University of Minnesota's Maxx Williams has drawn favorable comparisons to Witten, but will likely be a first or high-second round draft pick, and the Steelers could prove to have too many defensive needs to draft a player like Williams, who some would argue is a luxury pick.  Despite with the Witten comparisons, Williams is two or three inches shorter than Witten or Miller, and weighs less than both players.  ESPN's expert scout Mel Kiper Jr. is quick to praise Williams for his abilities as a pass catcher, but calls his blocking "adequate".  A Pittsburgh Steelers tight end must do better than "adequate."

But, the Steelers finding a player like Miller, who is basically an extra lineman with an extraordinary set of hands, could be difficult.  The evolution (or devolution) of college offenses to a spread system places less of a premium on tight ends as blockers, often times seeking big, fast targets who create mismatches in the secondary.  Even if someone like Williams won't be the next Miller, he could be the first Maxx Williams and give the Steelers a tight end threat capable of turning the already elite Steelers offense into a historically outstanding unit, "adequate" blocking aside.

Heath Miller won't be on the team forever, and his value, for all intents and purposes, probably won't ever be replaced.  So, the Steelers shouldn't be looking for "the next Heath Miller"; they should be finding a great prospect who can come in and make a name for themselves.