As Pittsburgh Steelers training camp is set to begin, Behind the Steel Curtain takes a look at each position battle and how players at those positions are expected to perform.
PITTSBURGH -- The tight end position is still in good hands with a healthy Heath Miller ready to go from the outset this season, but the immediate future is not that bright.
Miller, Matt Spaeth, David Paulson, Michael Palmer and seventh-round pick Rob Blanchflower are the club's top tight ends, but Miller and Spaeth are the only proven players. However, Miller is the only real threat. Spaeth has been inconsistent and isn't really a reliable blocker despite his size.
Palmer primarily is a blocker, but Paulson can't block well at all. Blanchflower is an unknown quantity. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley likes to use multiple tight ends, sometimes three at a time in an offensive set, so one of the other players has to step up. The Steelers have hoped it would be Paulson, but he hasn't even been reliable as an edge blocker on field goals, extra points and punts. Palmer replaced him late last season after a couple glaring mistakes.
Despite missing two full games and recovering from knee surgery that occurred late in 2012, Miller still caught 58 passes last year. However, he averaged just 10.2 yards per catch and had one touchdown. And this will be his 10th NFL season. Miller appeared to be healthy in the spring, but he needs to be more of a threat downfield and in the red zone this season.
Spaeth is expected to be a reliable No. 2 tight end, but he's never proven to be a dominant blocker like Miller and has never had more than 13 catches (twice) and three touchdowns in a season (as a rookie with the Steelers in 2007). In seven NFL seasons and 95 games, Spaeth has just 50 catches for 264 yards and nine touchdowns. Any future investment in him would need to bring a much larger return.
Paulson has just 13 catches for 153 yards, but no touchdowns in two seasons. He had one fumble in each NFL season since the Steelers made him a seventh-round pick in 2012. He has no future with the Steelers if he doesn't improve as a blocker and in his pass-catching ability this year.
Palmer has been a reliable blocker and special teams performer, and if he continues to play at that level he could remain with the Steelers. Blanchflower will be given a chance as a blocker and pass-catcher, and he could move into the No. 3 roster spot as a tight end behind Miller and Spaeth. However, the Steelers will need to select a tight end higher in the draft than the seventh round like they have in two of the past three years.
First-year player Bryce Davis from Central Oklahoma and rookie Eric Waters from Missouri are other tight ends on the roster. Davis also doubles as a long-snapper. That position flexibility could successfully aide his chances to make the club. Waters also is a long shot.