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Steelers missing Heath Miller? As a receiver, not so much

Heath Miller was one of the all-time greats in Pittsburgh, and it was feared his retirement this past off-season would leave an unfillable hole. From a receiving perspective, at least, that’s not how it’s playing out so far in 2016.

NFL: New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

I’m about to tread dangerous waters here.

The Steelers aren’t really missing Heath Miller right now.

Please, put down the rebar and the broken I.C. Light bottles. Just hear me out.

I’ll preface this with the caveat that this is only dealing with Miller as a receiver. His primary replacement so far, second-year tight end Jesse James, has a long way to go as a blocker, although he’s growing into the role with each passing start.

I’ll also acknowledge that James’ targets and receptions are likely to take a steep drop if the team elects to move fellow tight end Ladarius Green from the Physically Unable to Perform list to the active roster, simply because Green is in a different zip code when it comes to his abilities as a vertical receiver. That’s not a shot at James, either, because you’re about to see that he’s become a dependable target. Green is, quite simply, a far more versatile athlete.

But this isn’t about Green. This is about the growth of Jesse James, and how well he’s done through the first seven games of 2016 at filling the vast hole left by Miller’s retirement after the 2015 season.

The verdict, as I already said, is that the Steelers simply aren’t really missing Miller as a receiver.

Before you get all huffy with me and complain that I’m comparing a rising James to Miller in his final season, you should know that’s only half-true. And the reality is that Miller’s final season as a receiver wasn’t much different from his average season. But if you don’t think quarterback Ben Roethlisberger already trusts James, think again. Miller averaged five targets per game in his career, while James is averaging four in 2016.

Of course, it’s not about how often the ball is thrown to you — it’s about what you do with those targets. So far, James is catching 71 percent of all balls thrown to him. Miller’s career average was 74 percent, a difference of just 3 percent. That works out to 3.1 receptions per game for James, and 3.5 receptions per game for Miller.

James is actually doing a good deal of his work in the red zone, and it’s paying off. In his final season, Miller pulled in two touchdowns, and averaged right about four per year throughout his career. At his current level of production, James is on pace for seven in 2016. In the best season of his career, 2012, Miller caught eight.

The one place James falls well behind Miller is in yards. That’s due to a number of factors: play selection, ability to get open when the play breaks down and — probably most importantly — the ability to break tackles. James has yet to show he’s mastered this skill, while Miller could have put on a clinic for it.

The reality is that the numbers for James are remarkably similar not just to Miller’s final season, but also to his career averages, at least from a receiving perspective. As I already acknowledged, James has a long way to go before he is in Miller’s universe, let alone his class, in that regard. He will likely never get there, but that’s more a function of just how amazing Miller was as a blocker than it is about any of James’ perceived shortcomings.

But as a receiver, the resemblance between Miller and James goes much deeper than just their builds. It goes all the way down to the heart of the statistics. It’s not likely that James will continue at this pace, though, assuming Green eventually makes it onto the active roster. It’s possible, though, that the rapport he has already built with Roethlisberger will somewhat nullify the advantage Green will likely be afforded simply based on his potential to be the vertical seam threat the Steelers have lacked in this modern NFL. On paper, it seems easy to write off James as the future starting tight end, but that may not be how it eventually plays out.

It shouldn’t, to be honest. He’s earned it with his ability to closely emulate one of the best all-around tight ends the game has seen in decades. If he can shore up his blocking a bit, he’s going to find himself not just meeting Miller’s numbers, but also exceeding them. That’s a tall order when you are replacing a legend.